Animal groups are often nonrandom assemblages of individuals that tend to be assorted by factors such as sex, body size, relatedness and familiarity. Laboratory studies using fish have shown that familiarity among shoal members confers a number of benefits to individuals, such as increased foraging success. However, it is unclear whether fish in natural shoals obtain these benefits through association with familiars. We investigated whether naturally occurring shoals of guppies, Poecilia reticulata, are more adept at learning a novel foraging task than artificial (in which we selected shoal members randomly) shoals. We used social network analysis to compare the structures of natural and artificial shoals and examined whether shoal organization predicts patterns of foraging behaviour. Fish in natural shoals benefited from increased success in the novel foraging task compared with fish in artificial shoals. Individuals in natural shoals showed a reduced latency to approach the novel feeder, followed more and formed smaller subgroups compared to artificial shoals. Our findings show that fish in natural shoals do gain foraging benefits and that this may be facilitated by a reduced perception of risk among familiarized individuals and/or enhanced social learning mediated by following other individuals and small group sizes. Although the structure of shoals was stable over time, we found no direct relationship between shoal social structure and patterns of foraging behaviour.