Sussex Wildlife Trust Three-spined stickleback: The smartest tiddler in the school.

September 10th, 2019
There is a genius in our midst. Lurking in the ditches, ponds and streams around Sussex you can find schools of three-spined sticklebacks. These fish are not much to look at, a tiny slip of dirty silver with some pointy dorsal spines to annoy predators. But, as befits an animal that spends so much of its time in a school, they’re real brain boxes. The clever behaviour of sticklebacks has been the subject of endless academic studies with boffins recently declaring them the ‘genius of the fish world’ after discovering that they actually learn from observing the mistakes of other sticklebacks. As a bloke who can’t seem to learn from his own mistakes, I have to agree that that’s pretty smart for a fish.

They don’t just excel academically. The male stickleback may also be the animal world’s greatest parent. He constructs a cosy aquatic nest and lovingly fans oxygen-rich water over his eggs with his tail. During the breeding season he undergoes a dramatic makeover from silver to gaudy red, with day-glo blue eyeliner. Despite looking like Cyndi Lauper circa 1984 he’s still as rowdy as ever and will aggressively defend his eggs against anything that passes by – especially if it’s red. One scientist noted his stickleback’s fish tank tantrums coincided with the postman’s red van passing by the window each morning.

For me, the smartest thing the stickleback has achieved is single-handedly encouraging generations of children out of their homes and into the countryside. For many people their early encounters with this little fish, while stood knee-deep in the great outdoors with net and jam jar, has instilled in them a lifelong wonder and respect for nature. Nowadays such rituals of passage are rarely played out and recent reports warn that alienation from the natural world has serious implications for a child’s development. There’s a lot that our children can learn from the three-spined stickleback.

For Sussex Wildlife Trust, engaging and inspiring children is a big part of our work. Each year thousands of schoolchildren visit our Woods Mill nature reserve, where we have them dipping for tadpoles and sticklebacks, identifying wildflowers, lighting campfires and generally getting muddy and having fun in nature. Getting children to connect to the world around them is vital. The countryside around Sussex is one big classroom, so get out and enjoy it - there is so much to be learned. Or should that be learnt?

By Michael Blencowe: Learning & Engagement Officer,
Sussex Wildlife Trust
Sussex Wildlife Trust is an independent registered charity caring for wildlife and habitats throughout Sussex. Founded in 1961, we rely on the support of our members to help protect our rich natural heritage. Please consider supporting our work. As a member you will be invited to join Michael Blencowe on our regular wildlife walks and also enjoy free events, discounts on wildlife courses, Wildlife magazine and our guide book, Discovering Wildlife in Sussex. It’s easy to join online at: or T: 01273 497532.

three-spined stickleback©Derek Middleton Sussex Wildlife Trust
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