Living in mixed species groups promotes predator learning in degraded habitats

Chivers, Douglas P., McCormick, Mark I., Fakan, Eric P., Barry, Randall P., and Ferrari, Maud (2021) Living in mixed species groups promotes predator learning in degraded habitats. Scientific Reports, 11. 19335.

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Living in mix-species aggregations provides animals with substantive anti-predator, foraging and locomotory advantages while simultaneously exposing them to costs, including increased competition and pathogen exposure. Given each species possess unique morphology, competitive ability, parasite vulnerability and predator defences, we can surmise that each species in mixed groups will experience a unique set of trade-offs. In addition to this unique balance, each species must also contend with anthropogenic changes, a relatively new, and rapidly increasing phenomenon, that adds further complexity to any system. This complex balance of biotic and abiotic factors is on full display in the exceptionally diverse, yet anthropogenically degraded, Great Barrier Reef of Australia. One such example within this intricate ecosystem is the inability of some damselfish to utilize their own chemical alarm cues within degraded habitats, leaving them exposed to increased predation risk. These cues, which are released when the skin is damaged, warn nearby individuals of increased predation risk and act as a crucial associative learning tool. Normally, a single exposure of alarm cues paired with an unknown predator odour facilitates learning of that new odour as dangerous. Here, we show that Ambon damselfish, Pomacentrus amboinensis, a species with impaired alarm responses in degraded habitats, failed to learn a novel predator odour as risky when associated with chemical alarm cues. However, in the same degraded habitats, the same species learned to recognize a novel predator as risky when the predator odour was paired with alarm cues of the closely related, and co-occurring, whitetail damselfish, Pomacentrus chrysurus. The importance of this learning opportunity was underscored in a survival experiment which demonstrated that fish in degraded habitats trained with heterospecific alarm cues, had higher survival than those we tried to train with conspecific alarm cues. From these data, we conclude that redundancy in learning mechanisms among prey guild members may lead to increased stability in rapidly changing environments.

Item ID: 69925
Item Type: Article (Research - C1)
ISSN: 2045-2322
Copyright Information: Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article’s Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit
Date Deposited: 10 Apr 2022 21:45
FoR Codes: 31 BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES > 3103 Ecology > 310301 Behavioural ecology @ 100%
SEO Codes: 19 ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY, CLIMATE CHANGE AND NATURAL HAZARDS > 1901 Adaptation to climate change > 190101 Climate change adaptation measures (excl. ecosystem) @ 100%
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