Photo: Simon Pearish at work in his fish lab

The Norwich Record | Winter 2018

There is a passage in the famous book by Dr. Seuss, “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish,” that describes fish like this: “Some are sad. Some are glad. And some are very, very bad. Why are they sad and glad and bad? I do not know. Go ask your dad.” Or, ask biology Professor Simon Pearish.

Pearish, behavioral ecologist and assistant professor of biology, is Norwich University’s resident expert on the personalities of fish.

In the classroom, Pearish and his students study the personality traits of the brook stickleback.

The study of fish personalities sounds more like play than work, a question formed in a young mind on a leisurely Saturday afternoon, ambling along a brook, looking down into the water, noticing how a school of fish interacts with its environment. In fact “school” is derived from the Greek scholē, meaning leisure.

The word has since evolved to denote a group moving together in unison. Imagine a school of fish, its elegant dance, how it seems to manifest as one body. Outwardly, the motion could appear leisurely. But we know that within—from abstracts like schools of thought to institutions like Norwich — schools involve complex mechanisms, a diverse range of roles and, yes, personalities.

Pearish is involved in an ongoing collaboration with Alison Bell of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and Bronwyn Bleakley of Stonehill College. Their question: why individual animals behave differently from one another. In their study of the Gasterosteus aculeatus, commonly known as the three-spined stickleback, they have observed that the “bold” sticklebacks — those more apt to take risks — tend to be more social. Conversely, the “shy” sticklebacks tend to be loners, more likely to go off on their own. Moreover, the alternative social preferences of both bold and shy fish appear to be adaptive, leading to increased survival in the wild.

A Darwinian question, “What role has evolution played in generating personality?,” lies at the crux of Pearish’s inquiry.

“I study fish personality because I want to uncover clues about human behavior that are buried deep in our evolutionary past,” he said.

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