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Do fish remember you?

Whether fish can remember individual people is a fascinating question. As pets, fish certainly seem to recognize their owners when they approach the tank or feed them. But do fish actually remember us in the same way that dogs or cats do? Let’s take a closer look at the evidence.

Can fish recognize faces?

Studies suggest that some fish do have the ability to recognize human faces. In 2016, researchers at the University of Oxford found that archerfish could be trained to recognize human faces with a high degree of accuracy. The fish were shown images of human faces and given a food reward for correctly identifying a face they had been trained to recognize.

Another study at the University of Queensland in 2018 found similar face recognition abilities in honeycomb grouper. These fish were able to learn and recognize human faces even when shown photos of just the lower half of the face. This suggests the fish were not just memorizing simple visual cues but processing faces as a complete representation of identity.

Do fish form bonds with their owners?

Many fish owners report that their pet fish seem excited to see them when they approach the tank. The fish may swim quickly to the front of the tank, splash at the surface, or display bright colors. This type of reaction suggests that the fish recognizes its owner and anticipates being fed.

Fish also often allow their owners to pet or hand-feed them without showing signs of fear or aggression. Over time, some fish become so accustomed to their owner that they will eat directly from the owner’s hand. This type of close interaction indicates a degree of familiarity and comfort with the individual human.

Can fish remember routines?

Fish do appear capable of learning routines and anticipating regular events like feeding time. In lab experiments, fish can be trained to expect food at precise intervals by presenting food consistently at fixed times. The fish will learn to aggregate near the top of the tank in anticipation of feeding as the usual feeding time approaches.

Fish owners also report that their fish seem to recognize their daily feeding routine. For example, fish may swim excitedly when their owner enters the room where their tank is kept at the usual feeding time. This suggests the fish has learned to associate cues like the owner’s presence or movements with the pending delivery of food.

Do fish have the brain power to remember people?

The brains of fish are quite different from those of humans and other mammals. Fish lack the large cerebral cortex that enables advanced cognition in humans. However, the areas of the fish brain that control learning and memory are similar to those found in other vertebrates.

Regions like the lateral pallium and medial pallium allow fish to learn behaviors, recognize stimuli, and form mental maps. So while fish may not have the same consciousness or ability to reason as humans, their brains can support complex learning and memory storage.

Key brain structures that enable fish memory

Brain region Function
Cerebellum Controls motor functions and conditioned behaviors
Dorsal pallium Processes sensory information
Lateral pallium Controls spatial memory and learning
Medial pallium Involved in stimulous recognition and memory storage

Factors that influence fish memory

Several factors influence how well fish are able to remember people or other stimuli:

  • Interaction time – Fish that spend more time interacting with humans are more likely to remember them.
  • Stimulus complexity – Simple stimuli like shapes or colors are easier for fish to remember than complex stimuli like human faces.
  • Reward association – Linking a stimulus with a reward like food improves recall ability in fish.
  • Species – Some fish like wrasses and cichlids demonstrate better memory and recognition skills than other species.
  • Age – Younger fish generally have better memory capacity than older fish.

How long can a fish remember a person?

Studies show fish can retain memories for remarkably long periods. Researchers trained young coral reef fish to recognize certain shapes and colors associated with a food reward. When tested again 5-7 months later, the fish still remembered the conditioned stimuli and performed the trained behaviors to receive the reward.

Other lab experiments have succeeded in training fish to remember stimuli for over a year. However, very long-term memories are likely easier to form and retain in a controlled lab environment. In a complex home aquarium, regular interactions are likely needed to keep a fish’s memory of its owner fresh.


So do fish really remember their owners? The evidence suggests that fish do have the capacity to recognize familiar people, especially those who regularly feed and interact with them. Fish learn routines, anticipate events, and develop conditioned responses based on their owners’ patterns of behavior over time. While fish memory may rely more on simple associative learning rather than true conscious recall, the effect for the fish owner is still a pet that seems excited to see them when they approach the tank.

With regular interaction and feeding, plus species well-suited to memorization like wrasses, cichlids, and bettas, fish can retain memory of their human caretakers for months or even years. So while you may quickly forget which fish is which in your aquarium, your fish almost certainly remember you and look forward to your company at feeding time.