To pee or not to pee: urine signals mediate aggressive interactions in the cooperatively breeding cichlid Neolamprologus pulcher

  • Dario-Marcos Bayani
  • Michael Taborsky
  • Joachim G. Frommen
Original Article


The communication of aggressive propensity is an important component of agonistic interactions. For this purpose, animals use different sensory modalities involving visual, acoustical and chemical cues. While visual and acoustic communication used in aggressive encounters has been studied extensively in a wide range of taxa, the role of chemical communication received less attention. Here, we studied the role of chemical cues used during agonistic interactions of territory owners in the cooperative cichlid Neolamprologus pulcher. During staged encounters, we allowed either visual and chemical contact between two contestants or visual contact only. As chemical information in this species is most likely transferred via urine, we measured urination patterns using dye injections. Furthermore, we recorded aggressive and submissive behaviours of both contestants in response to the experimental treatment. Fish that had only visual contact with each other significantly increased their urination frequency and showed more aggressive displays compared to fish with both visual and chemical contact. Furthermore, appropriate agonistic responses appear to be dependent on available chemical information. This indicates that N. pulcher actively emits chemical signals to communicate their aggressive propensity via urine. Chemical communication thus plays a crucial role in multimodal communication of aggression in these fish, which highlights the need of studying the role of chemical communication during agonistic encounters in general, even if other signals are more obvious to the human observer.

Significance statement

The communication of aggressive tendencies can be achieved by transmitting visual, acoustical and chemical information. In this context chemical communication received less attention than other modalities thus far. We studied the importance of chemical information released via urine during agonistic encounters in the cooperatively breeding cichlid N. pulcher. Using dye injections, we measured urination patterns as well as the aggressive and submissive behaviours of two contestants. We show that N. pulcher actively signals aggressive tendencies via altered urination patterns. Furthermore, we show that appropriate agonistic responses appear to be dependent on the availability of such chemical information. Thus, our results suggest that chemical communication plays a crucial role in multimodal communication of aggression in these fish. These findings highlight the importance of chemical communication during agonistic encounters in general, even if other signals are more obvious to the human observer.


Chemical communication Agonistic behaviour Cichlid fish Visual signal Chemical cues Aggression 



We thank Evi Zwygart for her help with fish welfare and maintenance, Leif Engqvist and Frank Groenewoud for their statistical advice and Marcel Moser for his IT support. Valentina Balzarini provided drawings of fish. This work benefitted from discussions with Hirokazu Tanaka, Valentina Balzarini, Jon Andreja Nuotclá, Corinna von Kürthy and the members of the Jo-club. We are grateful to Manon Schweinfurth, Andrea Pilastro and two anonymous referees for thoughtful comments on earlier drafts of the manuscript. This research was funded by grants of the Swiss National Science Foundation (31003A_156152 to MT and 31003A_144191 to JGF).

Compliance with ethical standards

Ethical statement

The experiments adhered to the ‘Guidelines for the treatment of animals in behavioural research and teaching (ASAB 2012)’ and comply with the current laws of Switzerland (license number BE74/15).

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

265_2016_2260_MOESM1_ESM.docx (221 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 221 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dario-Marcos Bayani
    • 1
  • Michael Taborsky
    • 1
  • Joachim G. Frommen
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Behavioural Ecology, Institute of Ecology and EvolutionUniversity of Bern HinterkappelenSwitzerland

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