Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 70, Issue 5, pp 647–657 | Cite as

Seeing orange: breeding convict cichlids exhibit heightened aggression against more colorful intruders

  • Caleb Anderson
  • Ryan Jones
  • Michele Moscicki
  • Ethan Clotfelter
  • Ryan L. Earley
Original Article


Female convict cichlids (Amatitlania siquia) exhibit bright orange ventral coloration that males lack. The behavioral implications of this color are poorly understood, particularly in naturally occurring populations where female coloration could play a role in the expression of territorial nest-guarding behaviors. In this field experiment, monogamous breeding pairs of convict cichlids were presented with 3D printed model conspecific intruders of three body sizes (small, medium, and large) exhibiting three orange patch sizes (large, small, or none) to observe how territorial aggression varied as a function of intruder size and female coloration. Individuals occupying breeding pairs that were defending hatched offspring were significantly more aggressive toward intruders with small and large amounts of orange than toward models lacking orange, indicating that color is an important context-dependent elicitor of aggression in this species. Males were significantly more aggressive toward the intruder than females, and male aggression was strongly influenced by their size relative to the intruder. When males were smaller than the intruder, they performed significantly more aggressive acts than when they were the same size or larger than the intruder; this trend persisted across three putative populations in Lake Xiloa, Nicaragua. A potential explanation for these findings is that the orange color functions as a signal of individual quality or breeding readiness and that breeding pairs increase aggression to repel intruders that pose the greatest threat to pair bond and nest maintenance.

Significance statement

One or both sexes of many animal species possess brightly colored features that might communicate information about overall heath or reproductive status. In convict cichlid fish, males and females establish pair bonds and jointly defend their nest and offspring. Single females exhibit striking orange coloration that males and breeding females lack. Our field-based experiment provided evidence that more colorful females, which likely pose a threat to pair bond stability and nest maintenance, incite more aggression from breeding pairs than drab females. Our study suggests that color provides salient information about, perhaps, female quality or readiness to breed in natural populations, and adds to a growing body of research that seeks to understand the varied roles that colorful ornaments play in animal communication.


Convict cichlid Carotenoid Aggression Color Sexual dimorphism 



The authors are grateful to K. McKaye for the opportunity to use his facilities at Lake Xiloa and to M. McKaye, E. Van den Berghe, and L. Canda for logistical support. The authors would also like to thank the editor and three anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions, which significantly improved the manuscript.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

This work was supported by a National Science Foundation award to RLE (IOS- 1051682) and EDC (IOS-1051598). None of the authors report a conflict of interest.

This research was supported by a permit issued by MARENA to RLE and was approved by the University of Alabama IACUC (Protocol #10-345).

Supplementary material

265_2016_2085_MOESM1_ESM.docx (275 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 275 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Caleb Anderson
    • 1
  • Ryan Jones
    • 1
  • Michele Moscicki
    • 2
  • Ethan Clotfelter
    • 3
  • Ryan L. Earley
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of AlabamaTuscaloosaUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of AlbertaEdmontonCanada
  3. 3.Department of BiologyAmherst CollegeAmherstUSA

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