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Niko Tinbergen chose the three-spined stickleback Gasterosteus aculeatus for his classic behavioural studies because they are small, robust, common and easy to house in the laboratory under reasonably natural conditions and also because their behaviour, while sufficiently simple to be tractable, is still sufficiently complex to be interesting. An analysis of citation records shows that this was an inspired choice. Research on these small fish has addressed all four of Tinbergen's famous questions (causation, development, functions and evolution) and has contributed to the understanding of many different behavioural systems. The G. aculeatus literature is used here to explore several themes in fundamental behavioural biology (diet choice, shoaling, behavioural syndromes and sexual signalling) and the extent to which research using G. aculeatus has informed both fundamental and applied behavioural biology, the latter in the context of aquaculture research.