Surprising Intelligence: How Smart Are Goldfish?

There’s a pervasive perception that goldfish are unintelligent creatures with poor memory. However, the research tells a different story!

Apr 11, 2024By Dallin Darger
how smart are goldfish

Goldfish are rarely the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of intelligence. In fact, the perceived dimwittedness of goldfish is so strong that “goldfish brain” has become a frequent euphemism for bad memory. Are goldfish really not-so-bright, or is this an unfair myth?

See for yourself what the evidence has to say on the matter of goldfish smarts. To help give you a verdict, I’ll break down the species’ memory, learning capacity, social ability, and more!

Do Goldfish Have a Good Memory?

goldfish tank reflection
Photo by pouria oskuie on Unsplash

Let’s start with the most pertinent question: Is the common belief that goldfish have awful memories accurate? Modern research says otherwise. On the contrary, an Oxford University research team found that goldfish show an impressive and robust memory. The researchers were actually able to train their fish test subjects to swim along a predetermined route in their tank. A task like this could only be accomplished with strong long term memory, as exhibited by other intelligent marine creatures.

Other studies have found similar results. Experiments have determined that goldfish have the capacity to store and recall information for anywhere from 1 to 3 months. Goldfish are also able to remember the faces of people who feed them, even after extended periods of separation. This flies in the face of the oft-repeated myth that goldfish have a 10-second or even 3-second memory!

How Well Can Goldfish Navigate?

goldfish looking at camera
Photo by imsogabriel Stock

The navigational skill level of a fish species gives clues about several aspects of intelligence. For a fish to successfully navigate a test path, it needs to be able to estimate distance, remember start and stop points, and recognize environmental patterns. So, how do goldfish perform on this metric?

Quite impressively, it turns out! When trained to swim through a test route, the large majority of goldfish have shown an ability to adapt their navigation to novel stimuli. They can, for instance, reach their target destination and return to their starting point even if not given a cue by researchers.

Likewise, goldfish can successfully complete test routes in the case of altered environmental stimuli, such as when researchers change the fish tank’s background pattern. All of these navigational abilities require an attentive and adaptive brain structure (far beyond the common goldfish image!)

Food as a Learning Tool

several fish feeding
Image by Adrega from Pixabay

The trainability (and, often, the measurable intelligence) of any species depends highly on its ability to recognize and respond to rewards. For many animals (and fish are no exception!), this reward takes the form of food. So, do goldfish respond promisingly to food as a reward? Can they learn new tasks to earn treats?

The answer to both questions is a resounding yes! Goldfish are highly food-motivated and will learn a huge range of tasks, if given the right incentive. In several experiments, goldfish have learned to stay close to areas of their tank they associate with food. Research has also shown that an average goldfish can be trained to push color-coded paddles to receive food.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: If motivated by food, goldfish can learn to solve puzzles, swim through mazes, and escape nets. This type of learned behavior requires a degree of brain power comparable to any other intelligent animal.

Are Goldfish Socially Intelligent?

2 goldfish swimming
Image by Hans from Pixabay

A hallmark of animal intelligence is an aptitude for cooperating with and learning from others (and even members of other species.) On this front, goldfish show enormous potential. They are a notably social species of fish, with a pronounced tendency to form schools and swim close to fellow goldfish.

One remarkable example of goldfish’ social intelligence is their talent for recognizing faces. Several researchers and observers have noted that goldfish appear to distinguish the person who feeds them from other faces. Some goldfish even show signs of excitement when their owners become visible through their fish tank.

The skill of face recognition indicates a biological basis for forming bonds with other animals. Not something you’d expect from the stereotypical “dumb” goldfish!

Fish Intelligence and Pet Ownership

woman watching fish tank
Photo by Khoa Võ

Now, the verdict seems clear: Goldfish are a lot smarter than many think! But, does that have an effect on how smoothly pet ownership goes? Can a smarter species make the whole experience of owning a fish easier and more enjoyable?

Absolutely! While there are still plenty of hurdles you’ll have to contend with (aquarium maintenance, waste disposal, etc.), the intelligence offered by goldfish has several perks for any owner. Not only can you notice a bond form with your fish in real-time, but you’ll also find yourself observing intriguing behaviors. The joy of watching goldfish create social structures, navigate aquarium obstacles, and rush to see your face through their tank never loses its charm!

Dallin Darger
By Dallin Darger

Dallin is a passionate, seasoned pet owner and enthusiast. He has, over the course of 27 years, owned and loved a litany of breeds, from Labrador retrievers and calico cats to angelfish and neon tetras. Much of his free time is spent researching and learning everything he can about unfamiliar and exciting types of wildlife.