Small coral fish avoid predator dangers through smell

  • June 9, 2011

Research co-authored by Alex Vail is published by the Royal Society.

Young coral fish use their noses to detect predators and avoid making their homes in patches of the reef that they occupy, according to a new study co-authored by Gates scholar Alex Vail.

The study, Metamorphosing reef fishes avoid predator scent when choosing a home, is authored by Alex and Mark McCormick, and was published online this week by Biology Letters, a publication of the Royal Society.

The researchers say that although most organisms possess anti-predator adaptations to reduce their risk of being consumed, little is known of the adaptations prey employ during vulnerable life-history transitions, such as moving from the larval to small fish stage, when predation pressures can be extreme.

Over half of small coral reef fishes are consumed within 48 hours of metamorphosing from pelagic larvae to benthic juveniles.

Their research shows that naturally settling damselfish use olfactory, and most likely innate, predator recognition to avoid settling in habitat patches which emit predator odour.

The fish were up to 43% less likely to settle there than in control patches.

The researchers say the evidence suggests that this is linked to the survival instinct and suggests the fish have developed anti-predator adaptations which could play an important role in prey population dynamics.

Alex Vail [2010] is a Gates scholar studying for a PhD in Zoology.

Metamorphosing reef fishes avoid predator scent when choosing a home

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