Previous experimental studies have established that shoaling fish forage more effectively in large than small groups. We investigated how shoal size affects the foraging efficiency of laboratory populations of the guppy, Poecilia reticulata, exposed to different foraging tasks. Experiment 1 confirmed the prediction that in open water the first fish and focal fish of larger shoals locate food faster than in smaller shoals. However, a second experiment, in which shoals of fish were required to swim through a hole in an opaque partition to locate food, found the reverse pattern: smaller shoals learned to complete the task faster than large shoals. Experiment 3, in which shoals of various sizes were exposed to a transparent maze partition, clarified the apparent contradictory results of the first two experiments, with larger shoals again learning to complete the task faster than small shoals. The findings of experiments 2 and 3 can be explained in terms of positive frequency-dependent social learning, or conformity. This facilitated social learning in large groups in experiment 3 where visual contact could be maintained through the partition, but hindered it in experiment 2 where visual contact was lost once a fish had passed through the partition. The findings raise the possibility that novel behavioural innovations, particularly those that require individuals to break contact with the group, may be more likely to spread in smaller than larger groups of animals.
Bibliographical noteErratum can be found in Animal Behaviour, 63(1), p. 193, 2002.