Aggression in closely related Malawi cichlids varies inversely with habitat complexity

  • Patrick D. DanleyEmail author


Within the past 2 million years, the cichlids of Lake Malawi have diversified into well over 500 species resulting in one of the worlds largest lacustrine fish radiations. As a result, many of the habitats within the lake support a high diversity of species. In these highly species rich communities, male cichlids must acquire and defend a territory to successfully reproduce. Within the rock-dwelling cichlids of Lake Malawi (mbuna), this has resulted in the formation of polyspecific leks on the heterogeneous rocky benthos. Aggression is fairly common in these leks and has been tied not only to individual reproduction but to the larger phenomenon of community assembly and the maintenance of biological diversity. In this study, I examined the patterns of aggressive acts of four species within the mbuna genus Maylandia at two locations in the southern Lake Malawi. The number of aggressive acts of two sympatric species was examined at each location. At each site, one species defends territories over bedrock and the other over cobble. The number of aggressive acts across the four species was compared. The influence of habitat type on male aggression was examined and the targets of male aggression were identified to evaluate several hypotheses concerning the evolution of male aggression. The results show that aggression quantitatively varied among species, was largely directed towards heterospecifics, and was strongly influenced by habitat type. The aggressive behavior of one sympatric species pair, Maylandia benetos and Maylandia zebra, was observed under controlled laboratory conditions. Laboratory results support field observations: the bedrock associated species performed more aggressive acts and aggressive acts were directed equally at con- and heterospecifics. The results of this study suggest that habitat complexity plays a larger role in shaping aggressive behavior than other suggested factors such as competition for resources.


Mbuna Aggressive behavior Speciation Habitat utilization Lake Malawi Metriaclima Pseudotropheus 



Maylandia callainos


Maylandia aurora


Maylandia zebra


Maylandia benetos



I would like to thank Thomas D. Kocher, Michael Kidd and R. Craig Albertson for their help in collecting data on the aggressive behavior of fish in the wild. Additionally, T.D. Kocher, Gerald Borgia, and Tagide de Carvalho, and two anonymous reviewers made several valuable comments on previous versions of this manuscript. I am grateful to the University of Malawi and officials at Lake Malawi National Park for providing the facilities and permits necessary to conduct this work.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologyBaylor UniversityWacoUSA

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