Fish parents know who’s a threat to the family

The study involved Amphilophus sagittae. Above, Amphilophus citrinellus. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Cichlid fish in volcanic crater lakes of Nicaragua have a clever way of protecting their babies.

They defend their territory and offspring from potential predators, and strategically adjust their levels of aggression by using visual cues to distinguish friend from foe.

Lead researcher Topi Lehtonen of the University of Turku explains that during the breeding season, several different species of cichlids establish territories and raise their young in the same area.

“When they are breeding, parents rely on stored energy reserves and are busy looking after their own fry to pose much of a threat to the fry of other parents,” says Lehtonen.

“The same, however, cannot be said of non-breeders, which are only too happy to sneak into a parent’s territory and snap up some of their young.”

This is where the different color markings sported by breeding and non-breeding individuals come in handy.

Dummy intruders

In an experiment carried out in Lake Xiloá, the researchers presented parent cichlids with “dummy” intruders made by gluing photographs of another species of cichlid fish—both breeders and non-breeders—onto a piece of plastic suspended in the water column.

By using dummies rather than live intruders, the researchers were able to experimentally disentangle any differences in response from parents that might be due to the intruder’s behavior.

“The parents attacked the models as if they were real intruders,” says Associate Professor Bob Wong of the School of Biological Sciences at Monash University.

The researchers found that cichlid parents paid close attention to the intruder’s body markings when adjusting their aggression levels.


“Parents were far more aggressive towards the model intruders displaying non-breeding color markings compared to those in breeding coloration,” says Wong.

“The results are significant because they show that animals can use cues displayed in another species to obtain valuable information that can then be used to adjust their own behaviors.

“While this research was conducted on cichlids which are native to the Americas, Africa, and Asia, it is likely that this kind of strategic behavior could also be seen more widely and across other species.”

The study appears in The American Naturalist.

Source: Monash University