How well do your fish see outside their watery world? Better than you think.
You’ve already heard that cichlids are smart and have their own personalities. What you may not know is they watch you more than you think. Everyone has a story to tell about their fish grouping together and approaching the surface when a human gets within eyeshot of the tank. Or a story about a particular fish whose behavior changes when it see its human. Why? Your fish have learned to associate you (or something your size) with being fed.
However, they know you’re there because they can see you even if you think they can’t. I’ll give you a couple of examples from my own experience.
I have an adult male Telmatochromis sp. “temporalis shell” in a 20g long by himself. This isn’t his permanent home, but I had to separate him from his mate, a conspecific female. Inside his tank are three or four open-ended, ceramic caves like these. The caves each lie on the glass bottom and are arranged at various angles. He regularly moves effortlessly between and inside them. When I approach the tank, he’s leery about being out in the open. He’ll head to one of the caves. However, he will position himself so that just his head sticks out far enough where his eyes can see peripherally outside the cave. Why? So he can track me regardless of which cave he’s in.
If I move in a direction that puts me behind him, he’ll either turn around in the cave or move to another one with a better vantage point. What can I conclude from that? A couple of things. One, he can see me well enough to know that I’ve moved or am moving. Two, he has the ability to track my direction and put himself in a better vantage point.
I have another example with a different species. I have a very understocked 75g tank housing only one fish each of three Tanganyikan species – Altolamprologus compressiceps “Gold head,” a Lamprologus signatus, and a Neolamprologus transcriptus. The Gold head is very shy. I don’t know its gender. It’s still pretty young at only about 2.5″. Anyway, it has a favorite spot in the tank where it seems to have claimed a small, closed-end ceramic cave. The cave is one of several in close proximity. If I’m near the tank, it will go far enough into its cave that I can’t see it easily. However, if I move away and hide, it will slowly emerge. Ok, makes sense, but doesn’t really say anything. However, when it emerges, it will position itself so that as it rises up off the sand substrate an inch or two, it can see me as I enter the room (I take that to mean it assumes I’ve left because it can’t see me). Thus, when it’s looking for me, it will face the only direction I can enter the room from, expecting me to come into view from that direction.
I encourage you to observe your own fish. But don’t just watch them. Watch them and how they watch you!