top of page

Gills Just Wanna Have Fun

We all need to play. Even fish.

Play (verb): To engage in activity for amusement. - Merriam Webster

"Play [a fish]" (verb): The time period commencing from when you hook a fish to when you unhook him. - Me (as told to me by a guide when I was playing a fish too hard on a hot day)

I know, when I say "play" in the world of fly fishing, you are thinking about "playing a fish." I"m not talking about that. I'm talking about fish playing. Just like how I play with our surgeons by leaving fake snakes in their shoes.

Play is essential to all mammalian learning, from dolphins and dogs to people. It's also a part of life that makes life worth living. It's also a complex behavior, that requires some serious cerebral power than you think.

In one awesome paper, "Gills just want to have fun, Can fish play games just like us?", by Sofia Eisenbeiser and colleagues, they explored this exact question. And turns out, YES!, fish do play. They are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. I have excerpted some of the manuscript below, because, well, I can't say it any better than Dr. Eisenbeiser, she's a rockstar!

The Study

To examine this theory, they conducted field tests at local pet stores where a range of aquarium fish species were tested for responsiveness to laser pointer stimuli. Out of 66 species of fish tested, over 80% showed a tendency to be interested in the moving laser spots, particularly red ones.

"Play" (verb) [in a fish]. This criteria was proposed by Burghardt et al., who proposed a set of five criteria for classifying play in animals:
  1. The behavior is “incompletely functional” and does not contribute to immediate survival.

  2. The behavior is voluntary, spontaneous, intentional, and performed for its own sake.

  3. The behavior may resemble completely functional behaviors, but it differs in at least one respect, such as context, or is somehow incomplete, exaggerated, or awkward.

  4. The behavior is repeated consistently during at least a portion of the animal’s life but is not pathological.

  5. The behavior is begun in the absence of stress, hunger, predation, or circumstances that are otherwise unhealthy.


Burghardt, G.M. Defining and recognizing play. In The Oxford Handbook of the Development of Play; Oxford University Press. Oxford, UK, 2011.

Kids and Cichlids like to play.

The discus, Symphysodon spp., a Cichlid, is a popular aquarium fish.

In another study by Burghardt et al. they determined that three white-spotted African cichlids (Tropheus duboisi) exhibited play behavior with self-righting thermometers by repeatedly trying to knock them down and move them around in their respective aquariums.

Burghardt, G.M.; Dinets, V.; Murphy, J.B. Highly repetitive object play in a cichlid fish (Tropheus duboisi). Ethology 2015, 121, 38–44.

Rough Silversides play too

Rough silverside (Membras martinica, 82mm). Caught by MD Striped Bass Seine Survey. Photo by Robert Aguilar, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

Gunter and Ladiges also reported similarly unusual behaviors in fishes, citing rough silverside (Membras vagrans) fish who swam around, head-butted, and charged a nylon line, along with a sterlet (Acipenser ruthenus) who would vigorously push and pull objects in its tank.

Gunter, G. Observations on fish turning flips over a line. Copeia 1953, 1953, 188–190.

Ladiges, W. Der Sterlet im Aquarium. Die Aquar. Und Terr. Z. 1954, 7, 200–202.

And so do Elephants and Elephant Fish

Two juvenile elephants playing.

Elephant fish (Mormyrus), a family of fish with very large brains for their size, have been observed playing with twigs, pushing them around the aquarium and on top of their snouts even when not hungry and will manipulate plastic balls around their tanks. Tool use, another cognitively complex behavior, has been observed in wrasses (Labridae) and tuskfish (Choerodon schoenleinii), who crush mollusks in their mouths against rocks to break them open.

The elephant fish is an electric fish which generates an electric field with its electric organ and then processes the returns from its electroreceptors to locate nearby objects.

Nilsson, G. Brain and body oxygen requirements of Gnathonemus petersii, a fish with an exceptionally large brain. J. Exp. Biol. 1996, 199,


Meyer-Holzapfel, M. Über das Spiel bei Fischen, insbesondere beim Tapirrüsselfisch (Mormyrus kannume Forskal). Zool. Gart. 1960, 25, 189–202.

Burghardt, G.M. The Genesis of Animal Play: Testing the Limits; MIT Press: Cambridge, MA, USA, 2005.

Bernardi, G. The use of tools by wrasses (Labridae). Coral Reefs. 2012, 31, 39.

Jones, A.M.; Brown, C.; Gardner, S. Tool use in the tuskfish Choerodon schoenleinii? Coral Reefs-J. Int. Soc. Reef Stud. 2011, 30, 865.

Aquarium Fish like it RED!

One of the interesting findings of the study was that the majority of fish liked the red laser the most. This was, of course, species specific.

But what does this study mean for the anglers of Montana?

Don't look back unless it's a good view. - Tupac

Hmmmm.... good question. The fish in this study clearly preferred red laser lights. But each fish species is different. My favorite color is rainbow, and I bet you like something different!

In this cool FlyFisherman article by Bruce Ingram they talk about fly colors. But the surprising thing is the trout we fish for are more interested in 3 things according to Dr. Keith Jones, who is a researcher and scientist for Berkley/Pure Fishing.

"Those triggers are prey shape, size, and movement," he says in the article.

"Coming in fourth—a distant fourth, says Dr. Jones—for both bass and TROUT is color. The color trigger is more important to trout, and therefore to trout fishermen who fish near the surface where there is often plenty of light," writes Ingram.

"The red laser color was revealed as the most salient stimulus for the fish species we studied. A red object that hits the water surface will appear red, but the deeper it sinks, the less and less red light will be reflected. In our investigation, the tiger oscar cichlid (Astronotus ocellatus) was the only species that responded solely to blue light stimulation. This species typically feeds on sedentary prey in mud- or sand-bottomed waters, where mostly short-wavelength blue light propagates. Consequently, most species that exhibit red light preference live in clear and shallow waters, where color discrimination plays a vital role."

Exercepted from Gills Just Want to Have Fun: Can Fish Play Games, Just like Us?

by Sofia Eisenbeiser et al.

Why I love this paper and the group who published it: 

They are a voice for the animals in these beautiful rivers we fish that can't speak for themselves. I dig that. Their elegant research has shown that fish are smarter than we give them credit for. A big thank you to all the researchers, scientists and authors who I mentioned above for bringing this science to light. You all rock!

What Winston has to say:  

I'm not quite sure why the fish won't play with me? Sometimes Mom plays with me too much at work, and I have to tell her to SETTLE!

11 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page