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Rabbitfishes Guard Their Mates When The Latter Forage

Researchers from the James Cook University have unveiled a complex behaviour in rabbitfishes. The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

rabbitfishA rabbitfish guarding his mate while the latter feeds. Photo credits: Jordan Casey.

A team from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies from the James Cook University have discovered that rabbitfishes cooperate with each other in pairs when they are feeding. Some fishes will stand by and guard those foraging.

The type of behaviour that was observed was only documented in social birds and mammals, and thus finding it in fishes has proved to be quite amazing.

“We found that rabbitfish pairs coordinate their vigilance activity quite strictly, thereby providing safety for their foraging partner,” says Dr Simon Brandl from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.
“In other words, one partner stays ‘on guard’ while the other feeds – these fishes literally watch each others’ back.”

Furthermore, the behaviour witnessed has not been seen in other animals.

“This behaviour is so far unique among fishes and appears to be based on reciprocal cooperation between pair members.”

Reciprocal cooperation needs complex cognition and social skills that were believed to be far from the reach of fishes. They obviously are not as unintelligent as we would have thought.

“There has been a long standing debate about whether reciprocal cooperation can exit in animals that lack the highly developed cognitive and social skills found in humans and a few species of birds and primates,” says Dr Brandl.

“By showing that fishes, which are commonly considered to be cold, unsocial, and unintelligent, are capable of negotiating reciprocal cooperative systems, we provide evidence that cooperation may not be as exclusive as previously assumed.”

The researchers believe their study might cause others to analyse complex behaviours in fish in the future.

“Our findings should further ignite efforts to understand fishes as highly developed organisms with complex social behaviours,” says co-author Prof. Bellwood. “This may also require a shift in how we study and ethically treat fishes.”

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