Size-dependent use of territorial space by a rock-dwelling cichlid fish
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Territoriality fundamentally influences animal mating systems and patterns of population structure. Although territory ownership is already known to contribute importantly to male reproductive success and the ecological coexistence of African rock-dwelling cichlids, the significance of variation in territory features has received little attention in these fishes. In Lake Malawi, males of Pseudotropheus tropheops “orange chest” defend territories on either of two substrate classes at Harbour Island: flat rock slabs lacking crevices and caves, or structurally complex boulder fields containing cave shelters. Focal watches of this species demonstrated that both territory size and occupancy on either substrate type depend on the size of male residents. Males larger than a threshold size exclusively held the largest and most structurally complex territories. After removal of conspecific residents, more vacant territorial areas on cave-containing substrate were reoccupied by “orange chest” males in full breeding coloration compared to vacant areas on flat substrate. These findings suggest competition among “orange chest” males for complex rocky substrate. Defense of caves was associated with enhanced male courtship rates: the number of caves within a male’s territory was a better predictor of courtship activity than was male size or territory area. In addition to territories being crucial for male reproductive success and therefore likely playing a role in sexual selection, male–male competition for caves in rock-dwelling cichlids may be promoted by the ecological advantage of enemy-free space. Smaller “orange chest” males lacking caves tended to move into adjacent boulder fields in the presence of predators, particularly at night. In contrast, males defending caves were more likely to remain on their territories when nocturnal predators were present. The territorial behaviors of P. tropheops “orange chest” that we observed in situ provide an instructive natural framework for testing the roles of substrate and ecology in the mating systems of rock-dwelling cichlid fishes.