We currently have limited knowledge about complex visual representations in teleosts. For the specific case of Siamese fighting fish (Betta splendens), we do not know whether they can represent much more than mere colour or size. In this study, we assess their visual capabilities using increasingly complex stimulus manipulations akin to those adopted in human psychophysical studies of higher-level perceptual processes, such as face recognition. Our findings demonstrate a surprisingly sophisticated degree of perceptual representation. Consistent with previous work in established teleost models like zebrafish (Danio rerio), we find that fighting fish can integrate different features (e.g. shape and motion) for visually guided behaviour; this integration process, however, operates in a more holistic fashion in the fighting fish. More specifically, their analysis of complex spatiotemporal patterns is primarily global rather than local, meaning that individual stimulus elements must cohere into an organized percept for effective behavioural drive. The configural nature of this perceptual process is reminiscent of how mammals represent socially relevant signals, notwithstanding the lack of cortical structures that are widely recognized to play a critical role in higher cognitive processes. Our results indicate that mammalian-centric accounts of social cognition present serious conceptual limitations, and in so doing they highlight the importance of understanding complex perceptual function from a general ethological perspective.
Keywords: Aggressive behaviour; Configural processing; Feature binding; Higher-level vision; Inversion effect; Teleost cognition.