A Fishy Memory

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Updated on Feb 06, 2012

Grade Level: 6th - 12th; Type: Life Science


This project evaluates the abilities of goldfish to succeed at a task that requires the retention of learned behavior.

The goal is to have the student develop a hypothesis about the ability of goldfish to exhibit long-term memory.

Research Questions:

  • Can goldfish be trained to show a preference for colors?
  • Can goldfish use their experience with color training to successfully navigate a maze?
  • How long do goldfish retain their memories from color training?

Attention span is the length of time that someone can concentrate on an idea or task.

Despite their reputations for being instinct-driven, fish appear to be highly intelligent. Studies have found, for example, that they have well developed social intelligences. For example, they cooperate to find food. They have the abilities to manipulate, punish, and reconcile. There have also been reports of fish using tools.

There are hundreds of varieties of goldfish, with the fish exhibiting a wide range of colorations and physical characteristics.


  • Aquarium,
  • Colored paper cups
  • Several goldfish
  • Fish food
  • Plexiglas sheets
  • Cutting tool

Materials can be found at a Wal-Mart type store, pet store, plastics store.

  1. Cut the bottoms off two small red paper or plastic cups and one yellow one. The tops of the cups should have diameters of about 2.5 inches.
  2. Float one red cup and one yellow cup on the top of the water in the aquarium.
  3. Place food in the middle of the red cup. Do not put any food in the yellow one.
  4. Continue doing this until the fish have learned to associate food with the red cup or have shown that they do not make a distinction between the cups.
  5. Formulate a hypothesis about the ability of goldfish to display long term memory based on your experience training the fish.
  6. Cut two Plexiglass sheets so that they fit tightly between the front and back panes of the aquarium.
  7. Cut a hole in each of the sheets. The hole should be just large enough to hold a cup snugly.
  8. Insert a red cup into the holes of each of Plexiglas sheets, with the colored sides of the cups facing in the same direction.
  9. Place the two Plexiglas sheets in the tank so that they divide the aquarium into three equal parts.
  10. Place the fish at one end of the maze so that they will swim toward the colored portions of the cups.
  11. Measure the times required for the fish to traverse the partitions.

Reward the fish with food when they succeed in navigating the maze.

  1. Evaluate your hypothesis in light of your findings. If necessary revise it and perform additional tests.

Days in color training

Number of fish completing maze

Time to pass through first partion

Time to pass through second partition

Terms/Concepts: Goldfish; Attention; Instinct; Memory


Dr. Frost has been preparing curriculum materials for middle and high school students since 1995. After completing graduate work in materials science at the University of Virginia, he held a postdoctoral fellowship in chemistry at Stanford. He is the author of The Globalization of Trade, an introduction to the economics of globalization for young readers.

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