Environmental Biology of Fishes

, Volume 8, Issue 2, pp 81–96 | Cite as

Ecology and breeding behavior of a cichlid fish, Cyrtocara eucinostomus, on a large lek in Lake Malawi, Africa

  • Kenneth Rober McKaye


Cyrtocara eucinostomus, a mouthbrooding cichlid, breeds on a 4 km long breeding arena between 3–9 m depth in the Cape Maclear region of Lake Malawi. At times over 50,000 males display there, making this breeding arena the largest ever reported. The form and function of the arena and the behavior of the fish on the arena are analogous to bird leks. This arena serves only as a mating ground. All parental care is provided by the females, which leave the arena with the eggs. Courtship takes place in the morning and most of the males leave in the afternoon to forage on zooplankton in deeper water. They return at dusk. The few males that remain on the arena switch their behavior from courting to foraging on zooplankton. Comparisons of this fish arena are made with bird leks and it is concluded that the mating system of this fish can be defined as a lek in the avian sense. 1) There is no male parental care and an absence of monogamous pair bonding. 2) Males and females are sexually dimorphic and there are males present which mimic females to gain entrance into the arena. 3) The arena is traditional with a lack of environmental constraints and is away from the primary feeding grounds.

In order to determine 1) if this arena could be considered a true lek and 2) what the factors are which account for the location of this remarkably large arena in shallow water, data were collected upon: 1) the depth distribution of C. eucinostomus; 2) distribution and size of the nests on the arena; 3) the behavior of the fish on the arena; 4) the feeding habits of C. eucinostomus; 5) the distribution of the zooplankton upon which C. eucinostomus feeds; 6) water temperature throughout the year; 7) response of males to cormorants; 8) depth distribution and stomach analysis of predatory catfish which feed on C. eucinostomus. Based on this natural history data, it is concluded that the occurrence of the arena in shallow water is probably due to C. eucinostomus avoiding deep dwelling catfish which feed at night upon them and other cichlids.


Arena Mouthbrooding Sociobiology Predation Cape Maclear Zooplankton Cormorant Bagrus meridionalis 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

References cited

  1. Armstrong, E.A. 1947. Bird display and behaviour. Lindsay Drummond, London. 431 pp.Google Scholar
  2. Balon, E.K. 1977. Early ontogeny of Labeotropheus Ahl, 1927 (mbuna, Cichlidae, Lake Malawi), with a discussion on advanced protective styles in fish reproduction and development. Env. Biol. Fish. 2: 147–176.Google Scholar
  3. Barash, D.P. 1977. Sociobiology and behavior. Elsevier, New York. 378 pp.Google Scholar
  4. Barlow, G.W. 1974. Contrasts in social behavior between Central American cichlid fishes and coral-reef surgeon fishes. Amer. Zool. 14: 9–34.Google Scholar
  5. Barlow, G.W. 1976. The Midas cichlid in Nicaragua. pp. 333–358. In: T.B. Thorson (ed.) Investigations of the Ichthyofauna of Nicaragua Lakes, Univ. Nebraska, Lincoln.Google Scholar
  6. Baylis, J.R. 1974. The behavior and ecology of Herotilapia multispinosa (Teleostei, Cichlidae), Z. Tierpsychol. 34: 115–146.Google Scholar
  7. Beuchner, H.K. 1961. Territorial behavior in the Uganda Kob. Science 133: 698–699.Google Scholar
  8. Brichard, P. 1975. Reflexions sur le choix de la nidification ou de l'inverbation buccale comme mode de reproduction chez certaines populations de poissons Cichlides du lac Tanganyika. Rev. Zool. Bot. Afr: 89: 871–888.Google Scholar
  9. Crook, J.H. 1965. The adaptive significance of avian social organization. pp. 181–218. In: P.E. Ellis (ed.) Social Organization of Animal Communities, Symp. Zool. Soc. London 14.Google Scholar
  10. Eccles, D.H. 1974. An outline of the physical limnology of Lake Malawi (Lake Nyasa). Limnol. Oceanogr. 19: 730–742.Google Scholar
  11. Eccles, D.H., R.B. Williamson & R.G. Kirk. 1965. Annual report for the year 1963/64. Fisheries Research (Part 2). Govt. Printer. Zomba.Google Scholar
  12. Fryer, G. 1961. Observations on the biology of the cichlid fish Tilapia variabilis (Boulenger) in the northern waters of Lake Victoria (East Africa). Rev. Zool. Bot. Afr. 64: 1–33.Google Scholar
  13. Fryer, G. & T.D. Iles. 1972. The cichlid fishes of the Great Lakes of Africa. Oliver and Boyd, Edinburg. 611 pp.Google Scholar
  14. Greenwood, P.H. 1974. The cichlid fishes of Lake Victoria, East Africa: the biology and evolution of a species flock. Bull. Br. Mus. Nat. Hist. (Zool.) Suppl. 6: 1–134.Google Scholar
  15. Gross, M. 1979. Cuckoldry in sunfishes (Lepomis: Centrarchidae). Can. J. Zool. 57: 1507–1509.Google Scholar
  16. Gross, M. 1980. Sexual selection and the evolution of reproductive strategies in sunfishes (Lepomis: Centrarchidae). Ph.D. Thesis, University of Utah. 319 pp.Google Scholar
  17. Gross, M. & E. Charnov. 1980. Alternative male life histories in bluegill sunfish. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 77: 6937–6940.Google Scholar
  18. Jackson, P.B.N., T.D. Iles, D. Harding & G. Fryer. 1963. Report on the survey of northern Lake Nyasa, 1954–55. Govt. Printer, Zomba.Google Scholar
  19. Keenleyside, M.H.A. 1979. Diversity and adaptation in fish behaviour. Springer-Verlag, New York. 208 pp.Google Scholar
  20. Kirchshofer, R. 1953. Aktionssystem des Maulbrüters Haplochromis desfontainesii. Z. Tierpsychol. 10: 297–318.Google Scholar
  21. Kocher, T. & K.R. McKaye. 1982. Territorial defense of heterospecific cichlids by Cyrtocara moori in Lake Malawi Africa. Copeia. (In press).Google Scholar
  22. Lack, D. 1968. Ecological adaptations for breeding in birds. Methuen, London. 409 pp.Google Scholar
  23. Loiselle, P.V. & G.W. Barlow. 1979. Do fishes lek like birds? pp 31–75. In: E. Reese & F.J. Lighton (ed.) Contrasts in Behavior: Adaptations in the Aquatic and Terrestrial Environment, John Wiley & Sons, New York.Google Scholar
  24. Lowe, R.H. 1953. Notes on the ecology and evolution of Nyasa fishes of the genus Tilapia, with a description of T. saka (Lowe). Proc. Zool. Soc. Lond. 122: 1035–1041.Google Scholar
  25. Lowe-McConnell, R.H. 1956a. Observations on the biology of Tilapia (Pisces: Cichlidae) in Lake Victoria, East Africa. E. Afr. Fresh. Fish Res. Org. Suppl. Publ. 1: 1–72.Google Scholar
  26. Lowe-McConnell, R.H. 1956b. The breeding behaviour of Tilapia species (Pisces: Cichlidae) in natural waters: observations on T. karomo (Poll) and T. variabilis (Boulenger). Behaviour 9: 140–163.Google Scholar
  27. Lowe-McConnell, R.H. 1957. Observations on the diagnosis and biology of Tilapia leucosticta (Trewavas) in East Africa (Pisces: Cichlidae). Revue Zool. Bot. Aft. 55: 353–373.Google Scholar
  28. Lowe-McConnell, R.H. 1958. Observations on the biology of Tilapia nilotica (Linné)) (Pisces: Cichlidae) in East African Waters. Rev. Zool. Bot. Afr. 57: 129–170.Google Scholar
  29. Lowe-McConnell, R.H. 1959. Breeding behaviour patterns and ecological differences between Tilapia species and their significance for evolution within the genus Tilapia (Pisces: Cichlidae). Proc. Zool. Soc. Lond. 132: 1–30.Google Scholar
  30. Lowe-McConnell, R.H. 1969. The cichlid fishes of Guyana, S. America, with notes on their ecology and breeding behaviour. Zool. J. Linn. Soc. 48: 255–302.Google Scholar
  31. McKaye, K.R. 1977. Competition for breeding sites between the cichlid fishes of Lake Jiloa, Nicaragua. Ecology 58: 291–302.Google Scholar
  32. McKaye, K.R. 1981. Field observation on death feigning: a unique hunting behavior by the predatory cichlid, Haplochromis livingstoni. Env. Biol. Fish. 6: 361–365.Google Scholar
  33. McKaye, K.R. & G.W. Barlow. 1976. Competition between color morphs of the Midas cichlid, Cichlasoma citrinellum, in Lake Jiloa. pp. 465–474. In: T.B. Thorson (ed.) Investigations of the Ichthyofauna of Nicaraguan Lakes, University Nebraska, Lincoln.Google Scholar
  34. McKaye, K.R. & S.M. Louda. 1982. Experimental removal of nests of a lekking cichlid fish in Lake Malawi, Africa. (manuscript).Google Scholar
  35. Richardo-Bertram, D.K. 1943. The fishes of the Banweulu region. J. Linn. Soc. 41: 183–217.Google Scholar
  36. Ruwet, J.C. 1963. Observations sur le comportement sexuel de Tilapia macrochir Blgr. (Pisces: Cichlidae) au lac de retenue de la Lufira (Katanga). Behaviour 20: 242–250.Google Scholar
  37. Selander R.K. 1972. Sexual selection and dimorphism in birds. pp. 87–104. In: B. Campbell (ed.) Sexual Selection and the Descent of Man, Aldine, Chicago.Google Scholar
  38. Snow, D.W. 1963. The evolution of manakin display. Proc. 13th Int. Ornithol. Congr.: 553–561.Google Scholar
  39. Warner, R.R., D.R. Robertson & E.H. Leigh, Jr. 1975. Sex change and sexual selection. Science 190: 633–638.Google Scholar
  40. Wiley, R.H. 1973. Territoriality and non-random mating in sage grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus. Anim. Behav. Monogr. 6: 85–169.Google Scholar
  41. Wiley, R.H. 1974. Evolution of social organization and life history patterns among grouse. Q. Rev. Biol. 49: 201–227.Google Scholar
  42. Wilson, E.O. 1975. Sociobiology. The New Synthesis. Belknap, Cambridge. 697 pp.Google Scholar
  43. Witte, F. 1981. Initial results of the ecological survey of the haplochromine cichlid fishes from the Mwanza Gulf of Lake Victoria (Tanzania): breeding patterns, trophic and species distributions. Neth. Jour. Zool. 31: 175–202.Google Scholar
  44. Zaret, T.M. 1980. Predation and freshwater communities. Yale University Press, New Haven. 187 pp.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Dr W. Junk Publishers 1983

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kenneth Rober McKaye
    • 1
  1. 1.Duke University Marine LaboratoryBeaufortU.S.A.

Personalised recommendations