Experience can help animals adapt their behaviour to fit the environment or conditions that they find themselves in. Understanding how and when experience affects behaviour is important for the animals we rear in captivity. This is particularly true when we rear animals with the intent of releasing them into the wild as part of population rehabilitation and conservation efforts. We investigated how exposure to a changing, more complex environment promotes behavioural development in juvenile trout. Four groups of fish were compared; (i) fish that were maintained without enrichment, (ii) fish that were exposed to an early period of enrichment, but were then returned to a plain environment, (iii) fish that were maintained in plain conditions, but were then exposed to enrichment towards the end of the rearing phase, (iv) a group that were kept in enriched conditions throughout the 12 week rearing period. We then assessed fish anxiety levels, their spatial learning ability, and the capacity of the fish to find their way through a barrier where different routes were presented across 4 different trials. Fish that experienced enriched conditions for the longest duration had superior spatial learning abilities, and they were better at finding the correct route to get past the barrier than fish from the remaining three treatments. Positive effects on behaviour were, however, also found in the fish that only experienced enrichment in the last part of the rearing period, compared to the control, or fish exposed to early enrichment. No effect of enrichment was found on levels of anxiety in any of the groups.
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