Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 68, Issue 5, pp 871–878 | Cite as

Mirror, mirror on the wall: the predictive value of mirror tests for measuring aggression in fish

  • Valentina BalzariniEmail author
  • Michael Taborsky
  • Sandro Wanner
  • Felizia Koch
  • Joachim G. Frommen


The behaviour of animals towards their mirror image (“mirror test”) is routinely used as a proxy to measure aggression levels, especially in fish. The lack of evidence for visual self-recognition in fish supports this method. However, recent work points towards different hormonal and gene expression responses when fish are exposed either to conspecific opponents or to their mirror image, urging for validation of this widespread method. Here, we test the predictive value of mirror tests in three sympatric cichlid species from Lake Tanganyika: the cooperative breeder Neolamprologus pulcher, the polygamous shell brooder Telmatochromis vittatus and the monogamous, biparental piscivore Lepidiolamprologus elongatus. In particular, we compare differences in restrained and overt aggression levels for individuals of each species when confronted with a mirror or a live conspecific. The three species differed in response to the two contest situations. While in N. pulcher both aggressive responses were correlated between the mirror test and the live opponent fight, there was no such relationship in T. vittatus and L. elongatus. Thus, the mirror test appears to be a suitable surrogate for intraspecific aggression in N. pulcher, while aggression against a mirror image has limited predictive value for intraspecific aggression in the other two species. These results underline the importance of validating the mirror test’s predictive value in a study species before drawing conclusions from mirror tests about aggressiveness under natural, social conditions.


Neolamprologus pulcher Cichlid fish Animal personality Behavioural syndrome Copying style 



We are grateful to the members of the 2012 Behavioural Ecology class for discussions and to Pierpaolo Brena for his help during the experiments. We thank Evi Zwygart and the members of the Behavioural Ecology Division for helping to breed and rear the test fish. We thank Bob Elwood and two anonymous reviewers for the thoughtful comments on the manuscript. VB was partly funded by SNF grant no. 31003A_144191 to JGF. We acknowledge receipt of a poster prize for the presentation of the study underlying this publication at the 14th Congress of the International Society for Behavioural Ecology, Lund, Sweden (2012).

Ethical standards

The experiments followed the “ABS/ASAB guidelines for the treatment of animals in behavioural research and teaching” and comply with the current laws of Switzerland (licence number BE52/12).

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Valentina Balzarini
    • 1
    Email author
  • Michael Taborsky
    • 1
  • Sandro Wanner
    • 1
  • Felizia Koch
    • 1
  • Joachim G. Frommen
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Behavioural Ecology, Institute of Ecology and EvolutionUniversity of BernHinterkappelenSwitzerland

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