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Does consistent individual variability in pelagic fish larval behaviour affect recruitment in nursery habitats?

A Commentary to this article was published on 16 March 2021


Individual animals across all taxa differ consistently in behaviour, i.e. they show personality traits. This inter-individual variability has significant ecological and evolutionary consequences, since it affects a range of population-level processes. Here, we focus on the selection and recruitment of nursery habitats in temperate fish larvae. The “Sense Acuity and Behavioural Hypothesis” has proposed that fish larvae could detect and follow environmental cues to actively choose suitable nursery habitats. We empirically tested this hypothesis questioning if this non-random active process occurs and if it could be linked to consistency in individual behaviours. Individual larvae of the white seabream Diplodus sargus (Linnaeus, 1758) were tested repeatedly at different ages in a two-channel choice-chamber apparatus exposing them to a flow with different stimuli, as nursery habitats (lagoon, coastal), different temperatures or salinities and recording exploratory activity and preference in the different conditions. Most larvae changed behaviour during ontogeny, but they were also significantly consistent in their behaviour, revealing strong individuality; yet, no significant preference for the presented stimuli emerged, nor it was related to individuality. Exploratory activity was higher when larvae showed unresponsive or inconclusive behaviours, meaning that the larvae tried to find a different stimulus from the one that we were offering or had random habitat selection. Individual behavioural consistency could influence the process of searching for suitable nursery habitats and, consequently, dispersion and connectivity of white seabream population. Characterizing the behaviour of temperate pelagic marine fish larvae may shed light on fish recruitment variability, help refining larval dispersion models and possibly help understanding effects of climate change on population distribution and connectivity.

Significance statement

A Chinese idiom says that “It is easier to change mountains and rivers than to alter one’s character.” What about fish? Well, fish can exhibit individuality traits that control autoecological and demecological processes. For example, shy fish have lower fitness while the rate of invasion progress is faster in populations with bolder individuals. Individuality studies rarely focused on fish larvae, except for coral fish. So, we tested if temperate fish larvae display consistent behaviour throughout ontogeny. This goal delves into the Sense Acuity And Behavioural Hypothesis which incorporated behaviour into the hypotheses deeming to explain fish recruitment variability. We found that temperate fish larvae display consistent individual behavioural differences in exploratory activity since early in ontogeny. This confirms the deterministic role of pelagic fish larvae behaviour on population connectivity processes, namely to control their dispersion and choose a nursery habitat.

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The authors would like to thank the colleagues from Estação Piloto de Piscicultura de Olhão (EPPO)/Aquaculture Research Station–Instituto Português do Mar e da Atmosfera (IPMA, Portugal), especially to Marisa Barata and Tetyana Urshulyak. We are very grateful to one anonymous reviewer and Petri Niemela for very helpful and constructive suggestions on data analyses.


This study received Portuguese national funds from FCT—Foundation for Science and Technology through project UID/Multi/04326/2019, CLIMFISH project—A framework for assess vulnerability of coastal fisheries to climate change in Portuguese coast founded by Portugal 2020, n2/SAICT/2017—SAICT (Projetos de IC&DT) and DIVERSIAQUA project (Mar2020 16-02-01-FMP-0066). VB was funded by FCT—Foundation for Science and Technology with a Ph.D. fellowship (SFRH/BD/104209/2014). FL was funded by FCT—Foundation for Science and Technology in the ambit of the contract program DL57/2016/CP1361/CT0008.

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Correspondence to Vânia Baptista.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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All the experiments were conducted in accordance with the Guidelines of the European Union Council (86/609/EU) and Portuguese legislation for the use of laboratory animals and enforced by CCMAR. CCMAR staff are certified to house and conduct experiments with live animals, and their facilities are also certified in accordance with the three “R” policy, national and European legislation, and with guidelines defined by the ethical committee ORBEA CCMAR-CBMR.

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This manuscript is all original work, has not been published previously (partially or in full). No data in this manuscript have been fabricated or manipulated, and all authors have given consent to submit this manuscript and have contributed sufficiently to the scientific work.

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Communicated by J. Lindström

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Baptista, V., Costa, E.F.S., Carere, C. et al. Does consistent individual variability in pelagic fish larval behaviour affect recruitment in nursery habitats?. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 74, 67 (2020).

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  • Fish larvae
  • Personality
  • Recruitment
  • Environmental cues
  • Habitat choice