Anti-predator adaptations in aquatic environments

G5 Doctoral dissertation (article)

Internal Authors/Editors

Publication Details

List of Authors: Karin Kjernsmo
Publisher: Åbo Akademi University
Place: Turku, Finland
Publication year: 2014
ISBN: 978-952-12-3031-8


Predation is an important selective force that has led to the evolution of a variety of fascinating anti-predator adaptations, such as many types of protective coloration and prey behaviours. Because the evolution of life has begun in the aquatic environment and many anti-predator adaptations are found already in relative primitive taxa, it is likely that many of these adaptations evolved initially in the aquatic environment. Yet, there has been surprisingly little research on the mechanisms and function of anti-predator adaptations in aquatic systems. To understand the function of anti-predator adaptations and natural selection imposed on prey appearance and behaviour, I have investigated how protective coloration can be used, either as such or together with behavioural adaptations, to manipulate predator behaviour and decrease predation risk. To this end I conducted a series of behaviour ecological laboratory experiments in which I manipulated the visual appearance of artificial backgrounds and prey items.

In paper I of this thesis, I investigated background choice as an anti-predator strategy, by observing the habitat choice of the least killifish (Heterandria formosa) between pairs of artificial backgrounds, both in the presence and absence of predation threat. It has been suggested that prey could decrease their risk of being detected by predators either by preferring backgrounds into which they blend or by preferring visually complex backgrounds. The least killifish preferred a background that matched their patterning to a background that mismatched it, showing that they are able to respond to cues of visual similarity between their colour pattern and the surrounding environment. Interestingly however, in female least killifish visual complexity of the background was a more important cue for habitat safety and may override or act together with background matching when searching for a safe habitat. It is possible that in females, preference for visually complex backgrounds is associated with lower opportunity costs than preference for matching backgrounds would be. Generally, the least killifish showed stronger preference while under predation threat, indicating that their background choice behaviour is an anti-predator adaptation.

Many aquatic prey species have eyespots, which are colour patterns that consist of roughly concentric rings and have received their name because they for humans often resemble the vertebrate eye. I investigated the anti-predator function of eyespots against predation by fish in papers II, III and IV. Some eyespots have been suggested to benefit prey by diverting the strikes of predators away from vital parts of the prey body or towards a direction that facilitates prey escape. Although proposed over a century ago, the divertive effect of eyespots has proven to be difficult to show experimentally. In papers II and III, I tested for divertive effect of eyespots towards attacking fish by presenting artificial prey with eyespots to laboratory reared three-spined sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus). I found that eyespots strongly influenced the behaviour of attacking sticklebacks and effectively drew their strikes towards the eyespots. To further investigate this divertive effect and whether the specific shape of eyespots is important for it, I tested in paper III the response of fish also to other markings than eyespots. I found that eyespots were generally more effective in diverting the first strikes of attacking fish compared to other prey markings. My findings suggest that the common occurrence of eyespots in aquatic prey species can at least partly be explained by the divertive effect of the eyespot shape, possibly together with the relative simple developmental mechanisms underlying circular colour patterns.

An eyebar is a stripe that runs through the eye, and this pattern has been suggested to obscure the real eyes of the prey by visually blending parts of the eyes and head of the prey and by creating false edges. In paper III, I show that an eyebar effectively disrupts an eyelike shape. This suggests that eyebars provide an effective way to conceal the eyes and consequently obstruct detection and recognition of prey. This experiment also demonstrates that through concealment of the eyes, eyebars could be used to enhance the divertive effect of eyespots, which can explain the common occurrence of eyebars in many species of fish that have eyespots.

Larger eyespots have been shown to intimidate some terrestrial predators, such as passerine birds, either because they resemble the eyes of the predator’s own enemy or because highly salient features may have an intimidating effect. In papers II and IV, I investigated whether the occurrence of eyespots in some aquatic prey could be explained by their intimidating effect predatory fish. In paper IV, I also investigated the reason for the intimidating effect of eyelike prey marks. In paper II, I found no clear intimidating effect of eyespots, whereas in paper IV, using a different approach, I found that sticklebacks hesitated to attack towards eyelike but not towards non-eyelike marks. Importantly, paper IV therefore presents the first rigorous evidence for the idea that eye mimicry, and not merely conspicuousness, underlies the intimidating effect. It also showed that the hesitation shown by fish towards eyelike marks is partly an innate response that is reinforced by encounters with predators.

Collectively, this thesis shows that prey colour pattern and the visual appearance of the habitat influence the behaviour of fish. The results demonstrate that protective coloration provides numerous distinctive ways for aquatic prey to escape predation. Thus, visual perception and behaviour of fish are important factors shaping the appearance and behaviours of aquatic prey.


Last updated on 2019-25-06 at 06:01