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Hygiene-obsessed fish will clear your mind of a day that’s for ...


Hygiene-obsessed fish will clear your mind of a day that’s for the birds

Whether or not it's as clever as scientists say, it's still a lot smarter than thinking about a special day for women

Deputy features editor: Sunday Times

Today is International Women’s Day, according to Wikipedia. I’m not sure whether we’re allowed to acknowledge this in SA, since we have our own local Women’s Day on August 9.
Not that we should, if you ask me. I stand with other women’s-day-hating women when it comes to whether or not there should be a women’s day at all, anywhere. Setting aside one special day on which women are recognised as human beings serves only to put us down further.
I’m not the only one to point out the lack of need for a corresponding “men’s day”. Actress Rachel Weisz received a silent cheer from women recently when an interviewer asked whether she enjoyed playing “strong women” on screen. After pretending to give this some thought, Ms Weisz responded by saying how odd it was that her husband (actor Daniel Craig, better known to many as James Bond) was never asked whether he enjoyed playing “strong men”.
To paraphrase Australian writer and anti-nuclear activist Irina Dunn, “a woman needs a special day like a fish needs a man”. (Gloria Steinem is often credited with coining the original phrase, but she only popularised it.)
There is no special day set aside for fish – unless you count Friday in certain religious denominations. I wonder if this bothers the fish.
It might, because recent research suggests that fish are far more intelligent than we previously thought they were.
According to an experiment conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology – which perhaps had run out of birds on this particular day – the cleaner wrasse (a type of fish, for the non-ornithologists among us) can recognise its own reflection and, furthermore, dislikes being dirty.
This was discovered when scientists at the Max Planck Institute drew a mark on a cleaner wrasse, which you’d think would have turned it into a dirtier wrasse, but let’s not split hairs.
The mark was made somewhere on the fish’s body that could only be seen when it looked in the mirror (as I said, this was definitely a slow day for birds).
The remarkable thing about all this is that when the wrasse saw its reflection, it turned towards itself and tried to scrub the mark off its body. What it used as a cleaning implement is not clear, but I assume there was a little bucket of mops within fin’s reach.
So there you have it. Studies show that fish are cleverer than they might appear.
Usually I mistrust the phrases “recent research”, “results of an experiment” and “according to a study” almost as much as I despise the concept of women’s day, because the reporter reporting on the research hardly ever bothers to tell you how valid the methodology was and how representative the sample, but just this once I am prepared to set this aside, because even if there was only one fish in this experiment, even if the cleaner wrasse is already known to be hygiene-obsessed, and even if that particular cleaner wrasse was a total freak of nature, you have to admit it provides at least anecdotal evidence for changing the way we look at fish.
Or at least some fish. And if that hasn’t taken your mind off the thorny issue of women’s days then I don’t know what will.

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