The shocking secret of goldfish memory

The shocking secret of goldfish memory

Think your goldfish can’t remember one moment to the next? Think again. A schoolboy scientist in Australia has proven that goldfish have a far better memory than the three-second retention span of urban legend.

Roy Stokes, a pupil at the Australian Science and Mathematics School in Adelaide, performed his goldfish memory experiments to prove that fish should not be cooped up in too-tiny tanks:

“We are told that a goldfish has a memory span of less than three seconds and that no matter how small its tank is, it will always discover new places and objects,” Rory said.

“I wanted to challenge this theory as I believe it is a myth intended to make us feel less guilty about keeping fish in small tanks.”

His experiment involved training the fish to move towards a special beacon that he flashed 30 seconds before feeding them. Over several weeks the fish learned to swim towards the beacon in anticipation of the food, eventually doing so within a few seconds.

Roy then turned off the beacon for a week before restarting. The goldfish immediately responded to it again, proving their memory of the beacon’s relevance to any respectable goldfish’s favourite subject – food – was still intact.

“My experiments showed that goldfish have the mental capabilities to learn and remember fairly complex concepts and they can retain that knowledge for at least a number of days.”

The lesson? If you get a paranoid feeling your goldfish recognise you: you’re probably right.

46 Responses to “The shocking secret of goldfish memory”

  1. I’ve got something to add.

    Damn, I forgot what I was gonna say.

  2. wow, that’s really interesting. but do his findings really mean that goldfish need bigger tanks?

  3. Okay, so there’s no doubt that fish have memory. Anyone who has every kept fish could tell scientists that (okay, I accept that this was just a small boy). But the real question is whether or not their memory means they have feelings/emotions? I think very unlikely myself, much as I love my fish.

  4. Thank you RickieB : your comment was so predictable, but had me in stitches!!

  5. I can’t remember the last time I forgot!

    Nice web site BTW!

  6. My goldfish recognize that I am the one who feeds them. My husband works right next to them all day but they don’t give him the time of day since he doesn’t feed them. Any time I come downstairs, they go nuts thinking it is time to eat!

  7. just to let you all i have to do that experiment in pysch class. The one thing i can think of is there is a difference between short term and long term memory so chances are a goldfish has a short term memory of 3-4 seconds. But the long term memory is easily longer.

  8. i know that goldfish have a good memory as i go to feed my fish when they go nuts only to discover that my partner just fed them 10 minutes before.i have now started to ask if he has already fed the….no they haven’t forgotten they have just been fed because they know not to try and mooch off the one that has just fed them….they have gotten away with it a few times as well……who are the clever ones in my house.

  9. my gold fish always come screaming to the glass when I go by. and i talk to them too. I know they recognize me.

  10. I’ve trained my goldfish that when the lamp over her tank is turned on, it’s feeding time, and she waits near the top of the water for her food. She also knows that when the filter’s turned off, it’s water changing time because she hides in the corner (my boyfriend likes to dump the water straight from the bucket instead of using a cup to gradually fill it from the bucket like I do).

  11. I know they recongnize me. They get excited and follow my fingure and when I just look at them and they notice me they’ll get excited and jump around. They are stationed in a bowl on my computer desk. On a shelf above me.

  12. I agree – and what a clever schoolboy to do that experiment.

    My 3 fish (a comet and 2 shurbunkins) will only “kiss” my finger when they expect food. The moment I put the can of food in front of the tank, they all come up and “beg and kiss” near the top of the tank. When I just watch them, they seem to play, but will not “kiss” my finger unless I move that can where they can see it. They do not do any of this for my husband, which tells me they know us apart.

  13. well they must have a memory & mind that has
    emotion. ive Read several times that they have stress.
    so they must be thinking of something.
    How do they get Stressed? they don’t work

  14. What a bunch of cr*p!!

    The article’s author said “a schoolboy scientist in Australia has proven that goldfish have a far better memory than the three-second retention span of urban legend.”

    That’s bogus – if you’re calling Roy a schoolboy scientist, then the author doesn’t know what it takes to become a real scientist. A set of experiments does not make one a scientist. And experiments by one person – even a child as in this case – does not constitute “proof”.

    Using this type of logic, I suppose we can definitively say (prove) that, based on the grammar and comments posted at this web-page, “an armchair scientist in the U.S. has proven that goldfish owners posting to this site have far lower grammatical and communication abilities than urban legend.”

    Here are some proofs of this “scientific” finding, provided by our friendly posters above:

    “well they must have a memory & mind that has
    emotion. ive Read several times that they have
    stress. so they must be thinking of something.
    How do they get Stressed? they don’t work”

    “My husband works right next to them all day but they
    don’t give him the time of day since he doesn’t feed
    them. Any time I come downstairs, they go nuts
    thinking it is time to eat!”

    “i know that goldfish have a good memory as i go to
    feed my fish when they go nuts only to discover that
    my partner just fed them 10 minutes before.”

    “my gold fish always come screaming to the glass when
    I go by. and i talk to them too.”

    “Thank you much for that imformative post.”

    Proof indeed. Need I go on? (for those a bit shy of neutral, there’s sarcasm in “here wirdz”). Based on this proof, it appears we need to re-vamp the U. S. educational system.

  15. oh for gods sakes “proofin puddin”
    ever hear of a title!!
    the headline was a “schoolboy scientist in ausralia”
    its ment to catch the readers eye.
    not explain the entire story.
    Apparently you dont know as much as you say you do.
    you wanna “chat” more, email me at
    cause i think that your response is a bunch of cr*p.
    p.s you didnt include schoolboy scientists message in ure so called “proof” because you know he already informed to every1 that he had to do the experiment in physc class.

  16. I love my goldfish. They definitely can tell the difference between me and my wife. I feed them and they follow me back and forward in the morning til they get their meal.

    They help take the stress out of the day for me.

    After about a year they appear to become attracted to you. We had our prior goldfish for 8 years. He learned to eat from our fingers and was definitely affectionate.

    Our prior gold fish rode in our car all the way from California to Georgia. We took him in to restaurants and hotels along the way. We even took him in to the National Civil Rights Museum, in Memphis, where a grumpy guard kept him until we finished our tour. When we arrived back at the guard station we found he was a celebrity with a group of school children around. The guard was smiling with a warm glow and asked, “Don’t you want to leave him here?”

  17. The Mythbusters already proved it as well. (because they’re cooler than some foreign scientist) 😀

  18. Quote Richard Walker:

    “Okay, so there’s no doubt that fish have memory. Anyone who has every kept fish could tell scientists that (okay, I accept that this was just a small boy). But the real question is whether or not their memory means they have feelings/emotions? I think very unlikely myself, much as I love my fish.”

    end Quote

    I would have to agree that the mere fact that the fish has a memory longer than 3 seconds does not ENTAIL that the fish has feelings or emotions.

    But if one were to use this non-entailment as a reason to justify keeping a goldfish in a too-small container I would find their reasoning unsound.

    Though the goldfish might not have human feelings or emotions there is a difference between a fish whose needs are met and a fish who can survive.

    Apart from the FACT that fish in bowls without filtration do not live full-length lives the fact is that a goldfish in a 20-30gallon tank with filtration is *happier than a fish in a bowl without filtration.

    why? because a goldfish with more room to swim and explore is more stimulated, and is fulfilling its purpose moreso than a fish in a tiny bowl.

  19. Hey Proofin Puddin. Why don’t you come down off your high horse, get a goldfish for yourself and then try and dispute what these people are saying? All they are doing is posting comments about themselves and their fish; who are you to judge them? If you want to be critical of someone, look in the mirror and start there. As for everyone else, luv yur posts (there’s one for Proofin Puddin). There’s a special bond between people and their pets and it doesn’t matter what the pet is. I’ve even heard that houseplants do better if they are talked to than ones that aren’t. Poor Proofin Puddin is probably convulsing over that finding!!

  20. I am over 50 years old and can tell you that so called facts
    about the animal kingdom 40 or so years ago have been proven
    to be 100% wrong. I have owned Gold Fish all my life and have
    observed that the 3 second rule is like Proofin Puddin alot
    like the stuff that collects at the bottom of a tank.

  21. I have owned my goldfish for 8 years now. I know that they have a memory. I know they have feelings. When I started out, I had three, unfortunately Sharkey got sick and passed despite all my efforts to save him. Let me tell you, the other two mourned the loss of their friend for almost 3 months before returning to normal. My fish do not associate me with food, but with the tattoo on my wrist. Mine is the only hand that is allowed in the tank, and if I use the arm without the tattoo they will “attack”. When I got my fish they where smaller than guppies and now are as big as an average adult hand. I love them dearly and although they really are dirty fish that require a lot of work (contrary to popular belief) I hope that they will be with me for many years to come as goldfish can live for up to 20 years or more. I think that anyone who is serious about a pet, and is willing to put in the work should get a goldfish, they really are fun to have.

  22. My Goldfish was a .99 purchase at Wally-World by my daughter and her husband, for my grand-daughter. They moved in with me to save to buy a house and brought the fish with them. I noticed right away that it was quite a character! I sort of took over the care and have have had “Gil” for about four years. I have learned that he/she has an individual and unique personality. He is very charismatic. When I am near the tank he will stare at me until I interact in some manner. I feel very relaxed and happy when I talk to and play with Gil. I have high blood pressure and other health problems that I think would be worse if we didn’t have him. I am 44 years old and have lived around all types of pets including monkeys and a Bengal tiger named Bassett. Gil rates as one of my favorite characters!

  23. I have a couple of gold fish, and they know my wife very well, because she feeds them constantly. When she passes in front of the tank, they immediately react to her presence and starts begging for food. They remember very good. I agree with you. the do remember.

  24. I have a pet goldfish. I always play music when I feed him.
    Now whenever I play any type of music he sucks at the top of the tank begging for food. If I don’t feed him he just kinda swims in place looking really depressed. But after I feed him he becomes very energetic and does laps in the tank. This is just my personal opinion but I think that all pets have a certain emotional bonds with their owners.

  25. my daddy told me i was lying when i said my fish only remember for 3 seconds. well, i will have to tell him that he was right. anyway, he said that i was wrong because my fish know that i feed them and i own them! thx

  26. The fact that you feed the fish in the same area of the tank and they KNOW it tells you they have a memory. The 3 second memory myth is total nonsense.

  27. I just got a new goldfish today at school and this website is giving me very good tips. I think I will tell my friends at school the 3 second memory is not true. Proofing Pudding, I think your reply was a bunch of cr*p. Stop being a picky picky.

  28. You are totally right about that , all my goldfish go to the feeding spot and start swimming up and down when I go to the living room to see then first thing in the morning, and one of then even pretend to be dead floating upside down to attract my attention when I’m busy. They are very intelligent, when I feed then with some new food they don’t like they throw water off the tank in protest, the other day I though the tank was leaking, then I saw the biggest one throwing the water in the air as they hate frozen food, I just love my little brats.

  29. My shubunkin, who is in a ten gal tank and my comet and my Japanese Koi who are in a 20 gal tank certainly have lingering memories. Each evening at exactly seven-thirty PM I stand at their tanks and say “Night Night” and “Beddy-by” several times and they will swim to their special spots and wait for me to turn off the light on their tank and turn off the water hose. They, in fact, start preparing themselves as the time draws near each evening. I never fail to do this and they never fail to respond. There are other ways,too, that they have shown they have lasting memory.

  30. jake, “school boy scientist” juxta-positioned alongside “Australia” is an oxymoron… :-)) That’s why it was the headline… it was incredibly interesting news! 🙂

  31. Im not sure if my gold fish remember me yet cause i got them only a few days ago and they’re quite small. they re red comets and theyre really cute but just yesterday they were swimmimg at the top of their tank and they were stickig their mouth out of the water and opening and closing them they were’nt gasping for air , and i put my finger in the tank and gently stroked it and it stayed there and i stroked it a few times and it went under the water, but they dont eat out of my hand and this morning they did it again and i stroked it, i think they like it, is that unsuual? 🙂

  32. Thanks for this interesting topic! My goldfish is the same way. He knows the difference between me and other members of my family. He only swims up to the top when he sees me. He chases me and follows me every time I pass by the tank. It is quite adorable 🙂

  33. crap

  34. This experiment is correct. My fish will imediately swim to the top right side of the tank when they see me coming, knowing it is usually for food. When my parents do this, they don’t even care.

  35. This is correct i actually trained my fish and how did they get trained …. they remembered!

  36. I too belive that my fish recognize me. And a nice way to test that out, would be to put a bunch of goldfish from diferent owners in the same tank and then see how the fish responded as the owners appear by the tank one at a time, if the keepers’s fish are the ones that get all excited with by seeing him. Did any one done that?

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  38. it is absolutely true, my goldfish recognise me and recognise when i talk to them, they recognise the food pot and also come up to the window begging for food when I sit in front of them and eat ! they even know when Im eating that they want feeding too.

  39. This may sound strange too. I’m in an assisted living home for about a year now. My dear husband died over 16 yrs. ago and I was doing fine, volunteering in three different places helping others, but age takes it toll. I’m happy here, had to sell my home of 55 yrs. and raised all six kids there, but my apt. is nice, 2 bedrooms, one is my computer office, plus, a full kitchen etc. and I can come and go as I please, but of course limited because of age, 83…….yes…..We always had aquariums in our home, as do most of my children etc. I was at a volunteer party, yes, now I do some volunteer work at this place, I’m not a person to sit around all the time. I read, watch a little TV, mostly on the computer learning new things day by day. Ok, to make a long story short, I won a small fish bowl, one goldfish, and it is like a guest to me now. My kids are good, still working and busy some near some not,looking for a name to call my new guest. Any suggestions. I went to the store today and got fish food. I’ve changed the water little by little, but the bowl is small, and not sure how long I’ll have it. Maybe one of my visitors will want it but it is a nice change to have some movement with me all the time, like the old day.!!!

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  42. I have had my gold fish for a year now, at fist I had 3 but one got picked on I think maybe the tank was too small, it died, I got a 2ft tank with day and evening lights they are very happy and I change the scenery frequently most people say don’t do this but they don’t mind the change they seem to get excited when I put them back in the tank. (I keep all the scenery for the changes as they cost quite a bit.)One keeps nudging the other up it’s rear I think I have a pair, I took the plastic plants out as I was always scrubbing them and put real one in, they are very greedy and always know when feeding time is I feed them twice a day, 1 level tsp in the morning and in the evening, turning the pump off makes sure they eat it all then I turn it back on after 20min’s, they still scavenge and the pump is cleaned twice a week but there is hardly any food caught in it as they eat it all, I take half the water out twice a week and replace it and clean the tank every month. I have 2 very healthy happy fishes.

  43. I have more news about how to keep your gold fish tank clean, DO NOT USE REAL PLANTS ! I spent £25 on real plants because I was washing the plastic ones every week, ” wrong move” I wasted my money in just a week my pump was making a noise, I clean it twice a week anyway but this time each time was making a noise, it was blocked ! the plant are in the bin the plastic ones are back good job I saved them, they do keep the tank cleaner and my fish seem a lot happier with more colour.

  44. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about memory.

  45. […] The shocking secret of goldfish memory. 5 March 2008. […]

  46. All the above is very interesting reading – but the last post was over a year ago. I was actually searching for some help in regard to POND goldfish I have seven fish in a garden pond mainly comets and two shubunkin. One is sick. He stays on the bottom and has not come up for food for several days. His fins are open his scales look normal and there are no marks anywhere. I will refresh the water and clean the pump even though it was done a few weeks back and hope for the best. The other fish seem to keep him company every now and then – they seem to sense he is not well. Any ideas would be appreciated.

    In regard to the memory debate, a year ago a heron came into the garden and took two fish. The rest hid for a whole week – they were stressed and they did remember the event. I have had put netting over the pond now to prevent this happening again.

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