Coral Reefs

, Volume 37, Issue 4, pp 1127–1137 | Cite as

Social-trap or mimicry? An empirical evaluation of the Hypoplectrus unicolorChaetodon capistratus association in Bocas del Toro, Panama

  • Oscar PueblaEmail author
  • Sophie Picq
  • Justin S. Lesser
  • Benjamin Moran


Associations between resembling species have been noted long ago by naturalists and have been traditionally interpreted in terms of mimicry, whereby a mimetic species is naturally selected to resemble a model (Batesian and aggressive mimicry) or a co-mimic (Müllerian mimicry). Recently, it has been proposed that resemblances among reef fishes might be coincidental and that associations between them may result from social-traps, i.e., out-of-normal-context responses toward similar-looking individuals. The social-trap hypothesis is stimulating and calls for an in-depth reassessment of putative cases of mimicry in reef fishes. Nevertheless, an explicit field-based evaluation of these two hypotheses has yet to be conducted. Here, we test five specific predictions derived from the two hypotheses in the association between the butter hamlet (Hypoplectrus unicolor, Serranidae) and the foureye butterflyfish (Chaetodon capistratus, Chaetodontidae), which was one of the associations considered to develop the social-trap hypothesis. We present the results from 117 h of behavioral observation, 21 transect surveys covering 8400 m2 of reef, stomach content analysis of 107 fish, morphometric analysis of 165 fish and size measurements of 386 fish from Bocas del Toro, Panama. These data indicate that (i) C. capistratus is 14 times more abundant than H. unicolor at our study site, (ii) the association with C. capistratus represents only 4% of H. unicolor’s time, (iii) the association targets Coryphopterus gobies in particular and deceives this prey, (iv) H. unicolor departs from sympatric hamlets not only in terms of color pattern but also behavior, diet, size and body shape, and (v) H. unicolor spends only 0.66% of its time with conspecifics out of mating contexts. We conclude that the association between H. unicolor and C. capistratus in Bocas del Toro is a true mimetic relationship, but do not rule out the possibility that a social-trap might have contributed to its evolution.


Aggressive mimicry Social-trap Resemblance Reef fishes Hamlets Hypoplectrus 



We thank D.R. Robertson and M. Pierotti for a stimulating exchange on social trap and aggressive mimicry, Carolin Nieder, Clare Fieseler and Derya Akkaynak for help in the field, and the Panamanian authorities for support. This research was funded by the International Max Planck Research School for Evolutionary Biology, a grant from the Smithsonian Competitive Grants Program for Science to OP, a Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Short-Term Fellowship to SP, and a DAAD Undergraduate Scholarship to BM.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflicts of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 2 (MP4 58852 kb)

Supplementary material 3 (MP4 7749 kb)

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Supplementary material 4 (PDF 367 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, Evolutionary Ecology of Marine FishesKielGermany
  2. 2.Faculty of Mathematics and Natural SciencesUniversity of KielKielGermany
  3. 3.Smithsonian Tropical Research InstitutePanamáRepublic of Panama
  4. 4.Department of Marine and Environmental SciencesNortheastern UniversityBostonUSA

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