The genetic basis underlying the complex, social behavior of schooling is revealed in two studies published September 12 in Current Biology. The studies suggest that schooling is not a learned behavior, and instead show it relies on several regions of the fish genome.

The findings may point to the genetic underpinning of why humans also are social, and tend to gather in groups, some experts said, although others debated this.

Stickleback to school

Most fish exhibit schooling during some phase of their life cycle, research has shown. Fish evolved to swim in schools to better protect themselves from predators, improve their foraging and swim more efficiently.

Unlike shoaling, in which fish merely swim loosely together, schooling requires coordinated body positions and synchronized movement. Fish in schools need to sense their environment with high accuracy, maintain awareness of their position within the school, and respond quickly to changes in both water currents and movement of the group.