For the first time, the fixation of a camera onto the back of a South American imperial shag (Phalacrocorax atriceps) at Punta León in Patagonia, Argentina has allowed a glimpse into the incredible behaviour of this majestic seabird. Within just 40 seconds the bird completed a dive to 150 feet below the surface, where it spent 80 seconds browsing for prey on the ocean floor, finally capturing a fish before returning to the surface 40 seconds later. The amazing footage can be seen in this video from the Wildlife Conservation Society who were involved in the research.
Ref: Delaney J., 2012. ‘Superbird’ stuns researchers. EurekAlert! Zoology News [link]
All good men know that the way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach, and none more so than the swordtail characin (Corynopoma riisei). Males of this popular tropical aquarium fish take a rather literal approach to getting the girls “eating out of the palm of their hand” by luring them in with an anatomical ornament that looks like their favourite snack. The exact shape varies with diet across different populations - some, for example, take the form of ants where these are the dominant prey. This is an example of what is known as sensory drive, where sensory communication methods evolve by adapting to local environmental conditions. This can lead to speciation - the division of populations to form new species - particularly in cases like this where mate choice is affected. The swordtail characin is one of the few fish that reproduces by internal fertilisation, so by luring the female into close proximity, the male is then better able to position himself for mating to occur.
Ref: Kolm N., Amcoff M., Mann R. P. & Arnqvist G. (2012) Diversification of a food-mimicking male ornament via sensory drive. Current Biology [link]
New research has shown that Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) experience a feeling akin to frustration when they are not given a reward they are expecting to receive - a response previously only observed in mammals and birds. Debates over the ethics of fishing often throw up questions of whether fish are ‘conscious’ and have an awareness of pain, which has fuelled a fair amount of research in the area. Fish have been shown to be capable of responding to classical conditioning and to have long-term memories; however, we are still unsure to what extent their cognitive abilities are linked to conscious moods and emotions. This concept was studied in the salmon using a model commonly used in mammalian research called omission of expected reward (OER). In these experiments, animals are conditioned to associate a certain stimulus with a positive reward, such as food, and are then subjected to the stimulus without receiving the reward to record how they react. In mammals, OER has consistently been shown to cause animals to become stressed and aggressive.
Six groups, each consisting of 200 fish, were conditioned to associate a flashing light with feeding over a period of 22 days. By the end of this period, the fish showed attraction to the light due to association with the food reward, as opposed to their initial reaction of avoiding it. Three of the groups were then subjected to OER for 9 days - the fish were fed three times a day, and at two of these mealtimes, the expected food reward was delayed by 30 minutes. The other three groups carried on as normal, acting as controls.
When the groups were compared, OER groups showed higher aggression and greater hierarchy, causing some individuals to grow more quickly at the expense of others - interestingly, even during the one meal a day when the reward was provided immediately, aggression levels remained high. Stress levels were measured by detecting the concentration of cortisol (a hormone which is involved in stress response) in the blood, but unlike the variation seen in aggressive behaviour, these were the same across all groups, suggesting that although there were behavioural signs of stress this did not translate to a physiological stress reaction.
There are two possible explanations for the variation in aggressive behaviour:
- Dominant individuals may be trying to keep their position for prime access to food in expectation of the coming reward
- Aggression triggered by the stressful situation may be being displaced towards other individuals to help in coping with the conditions.
In either case this leads to stronger hierarchy and more uneven distribution of resources, as was observed in this study.
The overall conclusion is that fish respond behaviourally to frustrating conditions just like birds and mammals, suggesting this could be an adaptive response to unpredictable environments that has been conserved throughout vertebrate evolution. While we cannot yet conclude that fish definitely experience conscious emotional states, the results do highlight the importance of regular routine for domestic or farmed fish in order to reduce aggressive interactions between individuals that may be detrimental to the health of the population.
Ref: Vinas M. A. et al., 2012. Omission of expected reward agitates Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar). Animal Cognition Online first [link]
When we think of parental care, the most obvious aspects that spring to mind are the provision of food and the protection of offspring from predators. However, parental care is widely varied across species and can encompass protection from a broad range of other environmental threats including competition, parasitism and disease. The burying beetle Nicrophorus vespilloides is one such species that has recently been found to display a particularly interesting method of parental care. Larvae of this species are reared on the carcasses of small vertebrates, which are lovingly prepared for them by their parents who bury the carcass, roll it into a ball and remove any fur or feathers before finally covering it in a combination of oral and anal secretions. These substances are assumed to protect the carcass from microbial decomposers that would compete with the beetle’s offspring for food. However, the exact mechanism of how the secretions work has previously been poorly understood. Recent research has now revealed the nature of an anal secretion that is regularly secreted from the parent to the carcass: it is a highly bactericidal lysozyme, meaning it acts to break down peptidoglycan, a polymer that makes up the bacterial cell wall. This then leads to cell lysis - breakdown of the cell as a whole, resulting in cell death, specifically of gram-positive bacteria. Production of the lysozyme secretion corresponds with when it will be needed, increasing rapidly in adult females after discovery of a carcass, before peaking during the period of parental care and dropping again after the offspring have dispersed. The lysozyme secretion increases offspring survival by almost double, making it an essential part of parental care for Nicrophorus vespilloides.
Ref: Arce A. N., Johnston P. R., Smiseth P. T. & Rozen D. E., 2012. Mechanisms and fitness effects of antibacterial defences in a carrion beetle. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 25(5): 930-937. [link]