The smartest tiddler in the school

The smartest tiddler in the school
Stickleback / Mark Greco

By Michael Blencowe

People and Wildlife Officer

There is a genius in our midst. Lurking in the ditches, ponds and streams around Sussex you can find schools of three-spined sticklebacks. These fish are not much to look at, a tiny slip of dirty silver (with some pointy dorsal spines to annoy predators) but as befits an animal that spends so much of its time in a school they’re real brainboxes.

The clever behaviour of sticklebacks has been the subject of endless academic studies with boffins recently declaring them the ‘genius of the fish world’ after discovering that they actually learn from observing the mistakes of other sticklebacks. As a guy who can’t seem to learn from his own mistakes, I have to agree that that’s pretty smart for a fish.

They don’t just excel academically, the male stickleback may also be the animal world’s greatest parent. He constructs a cosy aquatic nest and lovingly fans oxygen-rich water over his eggs with his tail. During the breeding season he undergoes a dramatic make-over from silver to gaudy red (with day-glo blue eyeliner). Despite looking like Cyndi Lauper circa 1984 he’s still as rowdy as ever and will aggressively defend his eggs against anything that passes by – especially if it’s red. One scientist noted his stickleback’s fish tank tantrums coincided with the postman’s red van passing by the window each morning.

For me, the smartest thing the stickleback has achieved is it has single-handedly encouraged generations of children out of their homes and into the countryside. For many people their early encounters with this little fish, while stood knee-deep in the great outdoors with net and jam jar, has instilled them with a lifetime’s worth of wonder and respect for nature. Nowadays such rituals of passage are rarely played out and it seems like each week I’m reading a new reportwhich warns that alienation from our environment has serious implications on a child’s development. There’s a lot that our children can learn from the three-spined stickleback.

A large part of the work undertaken by Sussex Wildlife Trust is all about connecting children with nature. In 2016 we want to get 17,000 schoolchildren connected with and inspired by nature. You can read more about our plans here We’d certainly appreciate any donations to help us reach our target.

The countryside around Sussex is one big classroom – so help us to ensure that more kids get out and enjoy it - there is so much to be learned. Or should that be learnt?


  • Chris Burt:

    22 Nov 2015 19:53:31

    I love watching the Sticklebacks in my garden pond and I’m a big kid of 64 years. I have never lost that childhood wonder of all things in nature.

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