Facial recognition is something we do every day while communicating with other people. It is something we do without thinking about it, and usually, we are pretty good at it. Some people are far better than others, but on average we all do it pretty well. This is a trait that we only share with primates and some other big-brained species, who are also well versed in facial recognition, or so we thought until recently. In a recent study, scientists have uncovered that even some fish can do this.
Facial recognition has been thought to require higher brain function than some animals are capable of, but the recent study that involved archer fish has shown otherwise. This tells us that this skill is something that can be learned even by animals that do not possess highly developed brains.
Recent studies on this matter have been conducted on animals like sheep, dogs, cows, horses, etc. so for the later studies, scientists decided to use an animal that is missing an evolved neocortex. In humans, the neocortex is tasked with processing sounds and sight. Fish were chosen due to this fact, and the fact that they do not have a lot of interactions with humans. This eliminates any chance of inaccurate results due to the fact that the test subjects have interacted in the past.
A specific breed of fish, called the archer fish, was used for the study. Archer fish are part of the reef fish family. One of their distinguishing traits is that they shoot water into the air in order to knock their pray down. During the study, the fish were shown a series of faces and they were supposed to shoot down one particular face in order to receive a reward. Most of the fish recognized the face they need to squirt with relative ease. Scientists even tried to confuse the fish by removing the color from the faces, or even obscuring the view of the fish in various ways. Still, the fish were able to hit the correct face on most tries.
What this study showed is that facial recognition is not an innate skill, but rather something that can be learned over time. The neocortex only helps to speed up the process of recognition when faced with more than one option. The study has also shown that this trait is not something that only large-brained organisms can achieve. Much of the process behind facial recognition has turned out to be connected to learning rather than to something that an innate, God-given trait.
But further testing is required in order to prove this theory with any form of confidence. Especially because there is so little data connected to this topic. This study specifically is very small in scope, and there are a lot of factors and variables that need to be adjusted in order to give any credence to this theory. The biggest issue with this study that was conducted by the combined efforts from researchers of the University of Oxford, as well as by the researchers from the University of Queensland, is the sample size and the lack of variation. There were only eight fish used in the study. Also, the faces that they were shown were exclusive to white females from a German database. The faces were also shown in frontal view only, and they were largely expressionless. During previous studies, scientists have noted that other species of animals react differently to various expressions. For example, birds like pigeons respond more to faces that are shown from various angles and with an array of different expressions.