The performance of cleaner wrasse, Labroides dimidiatus, in a reversal learning task varies across experimental paradigms
2018, Gingins, Simon, Marcadier, Fanny, Wismer, Sharon, Krattinger, Océane, Quattrini, Fausto, Bshary, Redouan, Binning, Sandra A.
Testing performance in controlled laboratory experiments is a powerful tool for understanding the extent and evolution of cognitive abilities in non-human animals. However, cognitive testing is prone to a number of potential biases, which, if unnoticed or unaccounted for, may affect the conclusions drawn. We examined whether slight modifications to the experimental procedure and apparatus used in a spatial task and reversal learning task affected performance outcomes in the bluestreak cleaner wrasse, Labroides dimidiatus (hereafter “cleaners”). Using two-alternative forced-choice tests, fish had to learn to associate a food reward with a side (left or right) in their holding aquarium. Individuals were tested in one of four experimental treatments that differed slightly in procedure and/or physical set-up. Cleaners from all four treatment groups were equally able to solve the initial spatial task. However, groups differed in their ability to solve the reversal learning task: no individuals solved the reversal task when tested in small tanks with a transparent partition separating the two options, whereas over 50% of individuals solved the task when performed in a larger tank, or with an opaque partition. These results clearly show that seemingly insignificant details to the experimental set-up matter when testing performance in a spatial task and might significantly influence the outcome of experiments. These results echo previous calls for researchers to exercise caution when designing methodologies for cognition tasks to avoid misinterpretations.