Small prey fish can grow a bigger ‘eye’ on their rear fins as a way of distracting predators and dramatically boosting their chances of survival, new scientific research has found.
Researchers from Australia’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (CoECRS) have made a world-first discovery that, when constantly threatened with being eaten, small damsel fish not only grow a larger false ‘eye spot’ near their tail – but also reduce the size of their real eyes.
The result is a fish that looks like it is heading in the opposite direction – potentially confusing predatory fish with plans to gobble them up, says Oona Lönnstedt, a graduate student at CoECRS and James Cook University.
For decades scientists have debated whether false eyespots, or dark circular marks on less vulnerable regions of the bodies of prey animals, played an important role in protecting them from predators – or were simply a fortuitous evolutionary accident.
The CoECRS team has found the first clear evidence that fish can change the size of both the misleading spot and their real eye to maximise their chances of survival when under threat.
“It’s an amazing feat of cunning for a tiny fish,” Ms Lonnstedt says. “Young damsel fish are pale yellow in colour and have this distinctive black circular ‘eye’ marking towards their tail, which fades as they mature. We figured it must serve an important purpose when they are young.”
“We found that when young damsel fish were placed in a specially built tank where they could see and smell predatory fish without being attacked, they automatically began to grow a bigger eye spot, and their real eye became relatively smaller, compared with damsels exposed only to herbivorous fish, or isolated ones.
“We believe this is the first study to document predator-induced changes in the size of eyes and eye-spots in prey animals.”
When the researchers investigated what happens in nature on a coral reef with lots of predators, they found that juvenile damsel fish with enlarged eye spots had an amazing five times the survival rate of fish with a normal-sized spot.
“This was dramatic proof that eyespots work – and give young fish a hugely increased chance of not being eaten.
“We think the eyespots not only cause the predator to attack the wrong end of the fish, enabling it to escape by accelerating in the opposite direction, but also reduce the risk of fatal injury to the head,” she explains.
The team also noted that when placed in proximity to a predator the young damsel fish also adopted other protective behaviours and features, including reducing activity levels, taking refuge more often and developing a chunkier body shape less easy for a predator to swallow.
“It all goes to show that even a very young, tiny fish a few millimetres long have evolved quite a range of clever strategies for survival which they can deploy when a threatening situation demands,” Ms Lonnstedt says.
Their paper “Predator-induced changes in the growth of eyes and false eyespots” by Oona M. Lonnstedt, Mark I. McCormick and Douglas P. Chivers appears in the latest issue of the journal Scientific Reports.
Source: Australia’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (CoECRS)
Posted August 20th, 2013. 1 comment
Zebra danio. Photograph by Oliver Lucanus.
Chronic stress can lead to depression and anxiety in humans. Scientists working with Herwig Baier, Director at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Martinsried, recently discovered a very similar link in fish. Normally, the stress hormone cortisol helps fish, as in humans, to regulate stress. Fish that lack the receptor for cortisol as a result of a genetic mutation exhibited a consistently high level of stress. They were unable to adapt to a new and unfamiliar situation. The fishes’ behaviour returned to normal when an antidepressant was added to the water. These findings demonstrate a direct causal link between chronic stress and behavioural changes which resemble depression. The findings could also open the door to an effective search for new drugs to treat psychiatric disorders.
In stressful situations, the body releases hormones in order to ready itself for a fight or flight reaction. But it is equally important for the hormone level to return to normal after a certain time. If that does not happen, chronic stress can result, a condition that is linked to depression and anxiety, among other things. Whether stress is a trigger or merely a side effect of such affective disorders remains unclear.
The indication of a causal relationship between stress and depression comes from totally unexpected quarters. An international team led by Herwig Baierfrom the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Martinsried and the University of California in San Francisco observed that zebrafish suffering from chronic stress as a result of a genetic mutation showed signs of depression in behavioural tests. The zebrafish is a popular model organism for biological and medical research. So far, however, it has not been an obvious research object for the study of psychiatric disorders. This may be about to change.
“These mutant fish behaved very strangely when we moved them to a new aquarium,” reports Herwig Baier. All animals experience stress upon moving to an unfamiliar environment. Being separated from members of their own species places the fish under added pressure. Zebrafish initially act withdrawn in this situation and swim around very hesitantly in the first few minutes. But ultimately, curiosity prevails, and they begin to investigate their new tank. However, the fish with the mutation had a particularly strong reaction to the isolation: they sank to the bottom of the tank and stayed completely still. They took an exceptionally long time to get used to the new environment.
An analysis of these “lethargic” fish showed that they had an extremely elevated concentration of the stress hormones cortisol, CRH and ACTH. “We therefore postulated that these fish were suffering from chronic stress and were exhibiting certain aspects of depressive or perhaps hyper-anxious behaviour,” says Baier. To put this assumption to the test, the scientists added the antidepressant fluoxetine (marketed under the trade name Prozac, among others) to the water. Shortly afterwards, the fish’s behaviour returned to normal.
What was it that made these fish so different? The scientists uncovered a mutation in the glucocorticoid receptor, which is present in almost all of the body’s cells and which binds the hormone cortisol. Normally, when cortisol is bound to this receptor it restricts the release of the stress hormones CRH and ACTH. It is this regulating mechanism that enables humans and many animal species to cope with stress. In the type of fish the scientists examined, however, the glucocorticoid receptor was unable to function, and so the level of stress hormones remained high.
“Although there are a whole range of drugs available for depression, no one yet knows what the relationship is between their effect and the stress hormones,” explains Herwig Baier. “Our findings provide the first evidence of a possible connection.” Understanding the molecular and neurobiological relationships between stress regulation and affective disorders is important in the search for new treatments and drugs. The scientists’ discovery is therefore also of interest to the pharmaceutical industry, given that the zebrafish could turn out to be a good model organism for a large-scale screen for new drugs.
Source: Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology
Posted August 6th, 2013. 1 comment
Photograph courtesy of Penn State.
Raising fish in tanks that contain hiding places and other obstacles can make the fish both smarter and improve their chances of survival when they are released into the wild, according to an international team of researchers.
“It’s a key problem in that we are very good at rearing fish, but we’re really not very good at releasing those animals in the wild such that they survive,” said Victoria Braithwaite, professor of fisheries and biology, Penn State. “There’s a mismatch between the way we raise them and the real world.”
Juvenile Atlantic salmon raised in tanks that including pebble and rock hiding places and floating artificial plants were better able to navigate mazes and showed signs of improved brain function compared to the salmon reared in standard hatchery tanks, Braithwaite said. This may help conservation fish hatcheries raise and release fish that are better adapted to survive in the wild.
Conservation fish hatcheries raise cod, salmon, trout and other types of fish and release them in places where their species may be threatened, or where their populations are declining.
“The philosophy of most fish hatcheries is to rear a large number of fish and hope some survive,” said Braithwaite. “What this study is suggesting is that you could raise fewer, but smarter fish, and you will still have higher survivability once you release them.”
The researchers, who released their findings today (July 31) in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, placed pebbles and rocks at the bottom of the tank and added plastic plants weighted down so they would float vertically in the water. Braithwaite said the objects created a more natural, three-dimensional ecosystem.
“In the hatchery the world is homogenous, life is boring and monotonous,” Braithwaite said. “The water flow is the same, you don’t have to find your food and you don’t have to avoid predators.”
The researchers also moved the objects around about once a week during the eight-week study, which took place in Norway.
When the researchers placed the salmon in a maze, the fish raised in the enriched tanks made fewer mistakes when trying to escape the maze, Braithwaite said. The performance of the salmon from the enriched tank continued to improve with each trial, and they learned to solve the maze much faster than fish reared the standard way.
The brains of the fish from the enriched tank were also different from the fish raised in the standard hatchery tanks, according to the researchers.
They noted increased expressions of a gene in a region of the fish’s brain that is associated with learning and memory, an indication of increased brain function and growth. The fish raised in standard tanks did not show this sign of increased brain development.
Interacting with the environment can influence gene expression in the brain, Braithwaite said.
“The brain is a very plastic organ, it’s a dynamic structure,” said Braithwaite, who worked with Ann Gro Vea Salvanes, professor of biology; Olav
Moberg, doctoral student; Tome Ole Nilsen, researcher in marine development biology; Knut Helge Jensen, senior engineer in evolutionary ecology, all at the University of Bergen, Norway; and Lars O.E. Ebbesson, group leader of integrative fish biology, Uni Research, Bergen. Braithwaite said the enriched tanks created significant improvement in the intelligence and adaptability of the fish, but were relatively inexpensive and easy to implement. Owners of fish hatcheries should be able to afford the creation of enhanced tanks.
Photograph courtesy of Zookeys.
The new species Echinophyllia tarae is described from the remote and poorly studied Gambier Islands, French Polynesia. Although the new species is common in the lagoon of Gambier Islands, its occurrence elsewhere is unknown. Echinophyllia tarae lives in protected reef habitats and was observed between 5 and 20 m depth. It is a zooxanthellate species which commonly grows on dead coral fragments, which are also covered by crustose coralline algae and fleshy macroalgae.
This species can grow on well illuminated surfaces but also encrusts shaded underhangs and contributes to the formation of coral reefs in the Gambier. It is characterized by large polyps and bright often mottled colourations and it is very plastic in morphology like most hard corals. Patterns of partial death and recovery of the species were often observed and could be due to competition with other benthic invertebrates like the soft-bodied corallimorpharians or zoanthids which can co-occur with this species.
Stony corals are currently under threat by the effects of global warming, ocean acidification and anthropogenic changes of reef structures. Although corals represent a relatively well studied group of charismatic marine invertebrates, much has still to be understood of their biology, evolution, diversity, and biogeography. The discovery of this new species in French Polynesia confirms that our knowledge of hard coral diversity is still incomplete and that the exploration efforts of recent scientific expeditions like Tara Oceans can lead to new insights in a remote and previously poorly studied locations.
This species is named after the Tara vessel which allowed the exploration of coral reefs in Gambier. Moreover, the name “tara” in the Polynesian language may refer to a spiny, pointed object, which applies well to the new species typically featuring pointed skeletal structures. In the same language, Tara is also the name of a sea goddess.
Source: Benzoni F (2013) Echinophyllia tarae sp. n. (Cnidaria, Anthozoa, Scleractinia), a new reef coral species from the Gambier Islands, French Polynesia. ZooKeys 318: 59, doi:10.3897/zookeys.318.5351
Photograph courtesy of the University of Toronto.
TORONTO, ON – Some males will go to great lengths to pursue a female and take extreme measures to hold on once they find one that interests them, even if that affection is unrequited. New research from evolutionary biologists at the University of Toronto shows that the male guppy grows claws on its genitals to make it more difficult for unreceptive females to get away during mating.
Genitalia differ greatly in animal groups, even among similar species – so much so that even closely related species may have very different genitalia. The reasons for these differences are unclear but sexual conflict between males and females may be a source. Sexual conflict occurs when the fitness interests of males and females differ, which is rooted in differences in egg and sperm sizes. Males invest less than females in reproduction because sperm is cheap to produce, and larger eggs are most costly to make. This difference results in a conflict in which males are interested in mating with as many females possible but females are more selective with their mates.
The researchers examined the role of a pair of claws at the tip of the gonopodium of the male guppy (Poecilia reticulata) – essentially the fish’s penis.
“Our results show that the claws are used to increase sperm transfer to females who are resisting matings,” says Lucia Kwan, PhD candidate in U of T’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and lead author of a paper published this week in Biology Letters. “This suggests that it has evolved to benefit males at the expense of females, especially when their mating interests differ.”
The researchers tested two ideas for the function of the claws – one for their role in securing sperm in place at the tip of the gonopodium just before it is inserted into the female, the other for grasping unreceptive or resistant females during mating to aid in sperm transfer. For the latter, Kwan, former graduate student Yun Yun Cheng and faculty members Helen Rodd and Locke Rowe used a phenotypic engineering approach. They surgically removed the pair of claws from one set of males and compared the amount of sperm transferred by them with a group of males who hadn’t been declawed after they had all mated with receptive or unreceptive females.
“Clawed males transferred up to three times more sperm to unreceptive females compared to declawed males,” says Kwan. “The claw has evolved to benefit the males at the expense of females, and implicates sexual conflict between the sexes in the diversification of the genitalia in this family of fish. This provides support that this important selective force is behind an evolutionary pattern that evolutionary biologists have been trying to unravel for over a century.”
Posted July 25th, 2013. 1 comment
Photograph by Bluehand/Shutterstock
The mighty tuna is more closely related to the dainty seahorse than to a marlin or sailfish. That is one of the surprises from the first comprehensive family tree, or phylogeny, of the “spiny-rayed fish,” a group that includes about a third of all living vertebrate species. The work is published July 15 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The spiny-rayed fish are an incredibly diverse group, including tuna and billfish, tiny gobies and seahorses, and oddities such as pufferfish and anglerfish. The fish occupy every aquatic environment from coral reefs and open oceans to lakes and ponds. It includes all the major commercially fished species — all of which are threatened. But until now, no one has had any idea exactly how more than 18,000 species in 650 families are related to each other, said Peter Wainwright, professor and chair of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis and senior author on the paper.
“There has been a ‘bush’ at the top of the family tree leading to the rest of the vertebrates,” Wainwright said. “Now we have this beautiful phylogeny of one-third of all vertebrates.”
The study also shows that after roaring along for their first 100 million years, the pace of evolution of the spiny-rayed fish downshifted about 50 million years ago.
Some groups of fish have gone along steadily for millennia; others have gone through bursts of rapid evolution. Overall, the researchers found that the rate at which new species formed was fairly constant across the group from their origin to about 50 million years ago, then dropped about five-fold and has remained at that level since.
That might mean that these fish have essentially filled the available spaces, Wainwright said.
“It’s not uncommon in evolution to see a rapid diversification followed by a slowdown, but it’s never been seen on such a scale before,” he said.
Wainwright’s laboratory worked with the lab of Tom Near, a former postdoctoral scholar at UC Davis now at Yale University, and colleagues at the University of Tennessee, The Field Museum in Chicago, Florida Atlantic University and CUNY Staten Island to construct the family tree. Matt Friedman, a paleontologist at the University of Oxford, England, added fossils that helped set dates for branches of the tree.
The researchers looked at 10 genes in more than 500 fish species representing most of the families of spiny-rayed fish. They used the genetic data to construct a tree, grouping related families together. They also looked at the pace of evolution — the rate at which new species formed — in different branches, and across the group as a whole.
The spiny-rayed fish originated about 150 million years ago, separating from more primitive fish, such as lampreys, sharks and sturgeon, and from the ancestors of salmon and trout. Since then, they have spread into every aquatic habitat on Earth.
The tree shows some interesting relationships. For example, tuna are more closely related to seahorses than to swordfish or barracuda. The oddly shaped pufferfishes are related to anglerfish, the only fishes whose bodies are wider than they are deep.
Cichlids, a family that includes about 2,000 species of freshwater fish known for brooding their young in their mouths and a favorite for studies of evolution, are related to the engineer gobies, an obscure family of just two species that live on coral reefs and raise their young in a nest.
Wainwright’s special interest is in the evolution of fish jaws. Fish have two sets of jawbones, an outer jaw and “pharyngeal jaws” in the throat that adapted to different functions. In some fish, the lower pharyngeal jaw is fused into a single solid bone that can be used to crush prey such as shellfish.
Biologists had assumed that this fused jaw had evolved once and then spread into different groups of fish. Instead, the new tree shows that this structure evolved at least six times in different groups of fish.
Source: Alpha Galileo Foundation
The starfish compound eye (red cups) is seen at the tip of the arm. Each red cup corresponds to a single optical unit, ommatidium, in an arthropod compound eye. Photograph courtesy of Dan-Erik Nilsson, Lund University.
A study has shown for the first time that starfish use primitive eyes at the tip of their arms to visually navigate their environment. Research headed by Dr. Anders Garm at the Marine Biological Section of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, showed that starfish eyes are image-forming and could be an essential stage in eye evolution.
The researchers removed starfish with and without eyes from their food rich habitat, the coral reef, and placed them on the sand bottom one meter away, where they would starve. They monitored the starfishes’ behavior from the surface and found that while starfish with intact eyes head towards the direction of the reef, starfish without eyes walk randomly.
Dr Garm said: “The results show that the starfish nervous system must be able to process visual information, which points to a clear underestimation of the capacity found in the circular and somewhat dispersed central nervous system of echinoderms.”
Analyzing the morphology of the photoreceptors in the starfish eyes the researchers further confirmed that they constitute an intermediate state between the two large known groups of rhabdomeric and ciliary photoreceptors, in that they have both microvilli and a modified cilium.
Most known starfish species possess a compound eye at the tip of each arm, which, except for the lack of true optics, resembles arthropod compound eye. Despite being known for about two centuries, no visually guided behavior has ever been documented before.
How do fish swim? It is a simple question, but there is no simple answer.
Researchers at Northwestern University have revealed some of the mechanical properties that allow fish to perform their complex movements. Their findings, published on June 13 in the journal PLOS Computational Biology, could provide insights in evolutionary biology and lead to an understanding of the neural control of movement and development of bio-inspired underwater vehicles.
“If we could play God and create an undulatory swimmer, how stiff should its body be? At what wave frequency should its body undulate so it moves at its top speed? How does its brain control those movements?” said Neelesh Patankar, professor of mechanical engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. “Millennia ago, undulatory swimmers like eels that had the right mechanical properties are the ones that would have survived.”
The researchers used computational methods to test assumptions about the preferred evolutionary characteristics. For example, species with low muscle activation frequency and high body stiffness are the most successful; the researchers found the optimal values for each property.
“The stiffness that we predict for good swimming characteristics is, in fact, the same as the experimentally determined stiffness of undulatory swimmers with a backbone,” said Amneet Bhalla, graduate student in mechanical engineering at McCormick and one of the paper’s authors.
“Thus, our results suggest that precursors of a backbone would have given rise to animals with the appropriate body stiffness,” added Patankar. “We hypothesize that this would have been mechanically beneficial to the evolutionary emergence of swimming vertebrates.”
In addition, species must be resilient to small changes in physical characteristics from one generation to the next. The researchers confirmed that the ability to swim, while dependent upon mechanical parameters, is not sensitive to minor generational changes; as long as the body stiffness is above a certain value, the ability to swim quickly is insensitive to the value of the stiffness, the researchers found.
Finally, making a connection to the neural control of movement, the researchers analyzed the curvature of its undulations to determine if it was the result of a single bending torque, or if precise bending torques were necessary at every point along its body. They learned that a simple movement pattern gives rise to the complicated-looking deformation.
“This suggests that the animal does not need precise control of its movements,” Patankar said.
To make these determinations, the researchers applied a common physics concept known as “spring mass damper” — a model, applied to everything from car suspension to Slinkies, that determines movement in systems that are losing energy — to the body of the fish.
This novel approach for the first time unified the concepts of active and passive swimming — swimming in which forcing comes from within the fish (active) or from the surrounding water (passive) — by calculating the conditions necessary for the fish to swim both actively and passively.
The paper, “A Forced Damped Oscillation Framework for Undulatory Swimming Provides New Insights into How Propulsion Arises in Active and Passive Swimming,” was authored by Patankar, Bhalla, and Boyce E. Griffith, assistant professor of medicine and mathematics at New York University.
The work was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Photograph by D. Ross Robertson and Carole C. Baldwin, CC-BY 3.0.
A new species of tiny blenniiform fish has been discovered in the biodiversity rich waters of the southern Caribbean. Haptoclinus dropi is only around 2 cm in length with a beautiful color pattern that includes iridescence on the fins. The proposed common name of the species is four-fin blenny, due to the division of the dorsal fin into four sections, which is a distinguishing feature of the genus and unique among blenniiform fishes. The study was published in the open access journal Zookeys.
This beautiful new species was discovered as a lucky bycatch during targeted specimen catching at 157-167 m depth off Curaçao as a part of the Smithsonian Institution’s Deep Reef Observation Project (DROP). The new species, Haptoclinus dropi, gets its name from the project’s abbreviation and is one of numerous new ray-finned fish species emerging from this project.
For DROP expeditions the Substation Curaçao‘s manned submersible Curasub was used to catch specimens. While generally used as tourist attraction because it travels at much greater depths than divers can reach, the Curasub is also used for scientific marine research. Targeted fish specimens are collected with the sub’s two flexible, hydraulic arms, but very often small non-targeted fish are also caught in the process.
“Below the depths accessible using scuba gear and above the depths typically targeted by deep-diving submersibles, tropical deep reefs are productive ocean ecosystems that science has largely missed. They are home to diverse assemblages of new and rare species that we are only just beginning to understand,” explains the lead author of the study Dr Carole Baldwin, Smithsonian Institution.
Source: Pensoft Publishers
Original Source: Baldwin CC, Robertson RD (2013) A new Haptoclinus blenny (Teleostei, Labrisomidae) from deep reefs off Curaзao, southern Caribbean, with comments on relationships of the genus.ZooKeys 306: 71–81, doi: 10.3897/zookeys.306.5198
By Jeff Kubina. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
Fish can hide in the open ocean by manipulating how light reflects off their skin, according to researchers at The University of Texas at Austin. The discovery could someday lead to the development of new camouflage materials for use in the ocean, and it overturns 40 years of conventional wisdom about fish camouflage.
The researchers found that lookdown fish camouflage themselves through a complex manipulation of polarized light after it strikes the fishes’ skin. In laboratory studies, they showed that this kind of camouflage outperforms by up to 80 percent the “mirror” strategy that was previously thought to be state-of-the-art in fish camouflage.
The study was published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The research was funded by the U.S. Navy, which has an interest both in developing better ocean camouflage technologies and in being able to detect such strategies if developed by others.
“The open ocean represents a challenging environment for camouflage,” said Molly Cummings, associate professor of integrative biology in the College of Natural Sciences. “There are no objects to hide behind in three-dimensional space, so organisms have to find a way to blend in to the water itself.”
For the past few decades the assumption has been that the optimal camouflage strategy for open ocean fish is to reflect sunlight like a mirror. Many fish, including the lookdown, have reflective skin elements that can act like mirrors.
Such a strategy works well for certain aspects of light, such as color and intensity, which tend to be distributed homogenously in the region surrounding the fish. The mirror strategy is not optimal, however, when light is polarized, which occurs when individual waves of light align parallel to one another.
“In the polarized light field, there is a lot of structure in the open ocean,” said physicist Parrish Brady, a postdoctoral associate in Cummings’ lab. “Humans can’t see it, but more than 60 different species of fish have some degree of polarization sensitivity. They can perceive the structure in the light.”
The contours of the polarized light field in the open ocean environment are constantly changing except at noon, when the sun is directly overhead. A fish needs to do more than deploy the straight mirror strategy in order to stay camouflaged. Cummings hypothesized that perhaps nature had evolved a strategy to do just that.
She and Brady caught some lookdowns, which are known as good camouflagers. In tanks in the lab, they simulated the sun passing over the ocean during the course of a day, and they used a custom-built polarimeter to measure how the lookdowns reflected the polarized light.
They found that the lookdowns were able to manipulate their reflective properties in ways that were close to the theoretical optimum and far better than a standard mirror.
“The nifty thing is when we mimicked the light field when the sun is overhead, as it would be at noon, the fish just bounced back that light field,” said Cummings. “It acted like a mirror. Then we mimicked the light field when it’s more complex, and the lookdown altered the properties of the polarized light it was reflecting so that it would be a better blend into its specific background at different times of day.”
The lookdown’s “polaro-cryptic” mirror skin functions by selectively reducing the degree of polarization and transforming the angle of polarization of the reflected light depending on the conditions.
The researchers’ next task is to understand how the fish are accomplishing this feat.
Cummings said it might be an entirely passive process, with different elements of their skin automatically responding to the angle of the sunlight. Or, the lookdowns may aid in their camouflage by subtly altering their bodies’ orientation relative to the sun, or by neurologically ramping up certain processes.
What the researchers discover about these mechanisms will be of particular interest to the Navy, which at present isn’t as good as lookdowns at open ocean camouflage.
“From an evolutionary biologist viewpoint, I am always excited when evolution is one step ahead of humans,” said Cummings. “There is this problem out there — how to blend in to this environment, and though we haven’t quite solved it yet, an animal has. We can identify these basic biological strategies, and perhaps materials scientists can then translate them into useful products for society.”