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Computer animations of color markings reveal the function of visual threat signals in Neolamprologus pulcher

Balzarini, V, Taborsky, M, Villa, F and Frommen, JG (2016) Computer animations of color markings reveal the function of visual threat signals in Neolamprologus pulcher. Current Zoology, 63 (1). pp. 45-54. ISSN 1674-5507

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© The Author (2016). Visual signals, including changes in coloration and color patterns, are frequently used by animals to convey information. During contests, body coloration and its changes can be used to assess an opponent's state or motivation. Communication of aggressive propensity is particularly important in group-living animals with a stable dominance hierarchy, as the outcome of aggressive interactions determines the social rank of group members. Neolamprologus pulcher is a cooperatively breeding cichlid showing frequent within-group aggression. Both sexes exhibit two vertical black stripes on the operculum that vary naturally in shape and darkness. During frontal threat displays these patterns are actively exposed to the opponent, suggesting a signaling function. To investigate the role of operculum stripes during contests we manipulated their darkness in computer animated pictures of the fish. We recorded the responses in behavior and stripe darkness of test subjects to which these animated pictures were presented. Individuals with initially darker stripes were more aggressive against the animations and showed more operculum threat displays. Operculum stripes of test subjects became darker after exposure to an animation exhibiting a pale operculum than after exposure to a dark operculum animation, highlighting the role of the darkness of this color pattern in opponent assessment. We conclude that (i) the black stripes on the operculum of N. pulcher are a reliable signal of aggression and dominance, (ii) these markings play an important role in opponent assessment, and (iii) 2D computer animations are well suited to elicit biologically meaningful short-term aggressive responses in this widely used model system of social evolution.

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