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Relative versus absolute numerical representation in fish: Can guppies represent "fourness"?

In recent years, the use of operant conditioning procedures has shown that species as diverse as chimpanzees, honeybees, and mosquitofish can be trained to discriminate between sets containing different numbers of objects. However, to succeed in this task, subjects can use two different strategies: either select the array containing a specific number of items (an absolute numerosity rule), or select the set containing the larger (or smaller) quantity of items (a relative numerosity rule). In the latter case, subjects need not only be able to judge whether two numerosities are equal or different but also be able to order numerosities. Here, in two experiments, we address whether fish can perform both kinds of judgment by training them with specific numerosities and testing their generalization to new numerosity contrasts. In Experiment 1, subjects were initially trained to select between visual arrays of 6 and 12 shapes, and were then tested with a contrast pairing the previously trained numerosity (either 6 or 12) with a novel numerosity (respectively, 3 or 24). Spontaneously, subjects selected the novel numerosity, in accordance with a relative numerosity rule. The second experiment tested whether guppies can also learn to select one specific number against all others, if appropriately trained. Fish trained to select an array of four shapes against several alternatives (4 vs. 1, 4 vs. 2, 4 vs. 8, 4 vs. 10) learned to recognize the number four against all alternatives and proved able to generalize their discrimination to novel, more difficult contrasts (4 vs. 3 and 4 vs. 6 items). In summary, although guppies preferentially opt for relative comparisons, they can flexibly learn either relative or absolute decision criteria on numerosity stimuli, depending on the context.