, Volume 140, Issue 4, pp 676–683 | Cite as

Experimental confirmation of aggressive mimicry by a coral reef fish

  • Even Moland
  • Geoffrey P. JonesEmail author
Behavioural Ecology


A number of potential mimetic relationships between coral reef fishes have been described, but the underlying mechanisms are poorly understood. Similarities in colour between species have often been attributed to aggressive mimicry (where predators resemble models in order to deceive prey), however this has not been tested. The fang blenny, Plagiotremus rhinorhynchos is a specialized predator that feeds on tissues of other fishes. Some individuals appear to mimic the harmless cleaner wrasse Labroides dimidiatus in order to deceive fish visiting cleaning stations, thereby increasing access to food. In this study, the ecological relationship between the mimic and model was examined at Kimbe Bay (Papua New Guinea) and the hypothesis that colour similarities represent facultative aggressive mimicry was experimentally evaluated. Some juveniles exhibited a striking resemblance to the juvenile colouration of the cleaner wrasse, but only when in close proximity to the wrasse and only when similar in size. As predicted for mimics, P. rhinorhynchos co-occurred with L. dimidiatus, but was rare relative to the model. Among site comparisons showed that the abundance of mimetic type blennies was positively correlated with the abundance of juvenile cleaner wrasses. Approximately 50% of all P. rhinorhynchos were found ≤1 m from the nearest L. dimidiatus, a distance significantly shorter than expected if they were not associated. A cleaner wrasse removal experiment was carried out to test whether the colour displayed by the blenny and its foraging success were contingent upon the presence of a model. In all cases, removal of the model prompted a rapid colour change to a general non-mimetic colouration in P. rhinorhynchos. Removal of L. dimidiatus also resulted in a ~20% reduction in the average foraging success of the blenny compared to controls, supporting the hypothesis that the blenny is a facultative aggressive mimic of the cleaner wrasse.


Colour change Facultative mimicry Foraging success Labroides dimidiatus Plagiotremus rhinorhynchos 



We thank M. Barbosa and A. Pettersen for valuable field assistance, and P.L. Munday and M. Srinivasan for constructive comments on the manuscript. Logistic support was provided by the Mahonia Na Dari Research and Conservation Centre, and the Walindi Plantation Resort. An Australian Research Council Grant to G.P.J. supported this project.


  1. Bates HW (1862) Contributions to an insect fauna of the Amazon Valley. Lepidoptera: Heliconidae. Trans Linn Soc London 23:495–566Google Scholar
  2. Bshary R, Grutter AS (2002) Asymmetric cheating opportunities and partner control in the cleaner fish mutualism. Anim Behav 63:547–555CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bunkley-Williams L, Williams EHJ (2000) Juvenile black snapper, Apsilus dentatus (Lutjanidae), mimic blue Chromis, Chromis cyanea (Pomacentridae). Copeia 2000:579–581Google Scholar
  4. Caley MJ, Schluter D (2003) Predators favour mimicry in a tropical reef fish. Proc R Soc London B Biol Sci 270:667–672CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Dafni J, Diamant A (1984) School-oriented mimicry, a new type of mimicry in fishes. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 20:45–50Google Scholar
  6. Deloach N (1999) Reef fish behaviour: Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas, New World, JacksonvilleGoogle Scholar
  7. DeMartini EE, Donaldson TJ (1996) Colour morph-habitat relations in the Arc-eye hawkfish Paracirrhites arcatus (Pisces: Cirrhitidae). Copeia 1996:362–371Google Scholar
  8. Eagle JV, Jones GP (2004) Mimicry in coral reef fishes: ecological and behavioural responses of a mimic to its model. J Zool (in press)Google Scholar
  9. Gilbert LE (1983) Coevolution and mimicry. In: Futuyama DJ, Slatkin M (eds) Coevolution. Sinauer, Sunderland, pp 263–281Google Scholar
  10. Hobson ES (1969) Possible advantages to the blenny Runula azeala in aggregating with the wrasse Thalassoma lucasanum in the tropical eastern Pacific. Copeia 1969:191–193Google Scholar
  11. Joron M, Mallet JLB (1998) Diversity in mimicry: paradox or paradigm? Trends Ecol Evol 13:461–466CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Kuiter RH (1995) The juvenile vermicular cod Plectropomus oligacanthus, a mimic of the slender maori wrasse Cheilinus celebicus. Revue Fr Aquariol 21:77–78Google Scholar
  13. Kuwamura T (1981) Mimicry of the cleaner wrasse Labroides dimidiatus by the blennies Aspidontus taeniatus and Plagiotremus rhinorhynchos. Nanki Seibutu 23:61–70Google Scholar
  14. Kuwamura T (1983) Reexamination on the aggressive mimicry of the cleaner wrasse Labroides dimidiatus by the blenny Aspidontus taeniatus (Pisces; Perciformes). J Ethol 1:22–33Google Scholar
  15. Losey GS (1972) Predation protection in the poison-fang blenny, Meiacanthus atrodorsalis, and its mimics, Ecsenius bicolor and Runula laudandus (Blenniidae). Pac Sci 26:129–139Google Scholar
  16. Losey GS (1974) Aspidontus taeniatus: effects of increased abundance on cleaning symbiosis with notes on pelagic dispersion and A. filamentosus (Pisces, Blenniidae). Z Tierpsychol 34:430–435Google Scholar
  17. Mahon JL (1994) Advantage of flexible juvenile colouration in two species of Labroides (Pisces: Labridae). Copeia 1994:520–524Google Scholar
  18. Malcolm SB (1990) Mimicry: status of a classical evolutionary paradigm. Trends Ecol Evol 5:57–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Marshall NJ (2000) Communication and camouflage with the same ‘bright’ colours in reef fishes. Philos Trans R Soc London B 355:1243–1248CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Moyer JT (1977) Aggressive mimicry between juveniles of the snapper Lutjanus bohar and species of the damselfish genus Chromis from Japan. Jpn J Ichtyol 24:218–222Google Scholar
  21. Moynihan M (1968) Social mimicry; character convergence versus character displacement. Evolution 22:315–331Google Scholar
  22. Müller F (1879) Ituna and Thyridia; a remarkable case of mimicry in butterflies. Proc Entomol Soc London 1879:20–29Google Scholar
  23. Munday PL, Eyre PJ, Jones GP (2003) Ecological mechanisms for coexistence of colour polymorphism in a coral-reef fish: an experimental evaluation. Oecologia 442:519–526CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Ormond RFG (1980) Aggressive mimicry and other interspecific feeding associations among Red sea coral reef predators. J Zool London 191:247–262Google Scholar
  25. Randall JE, Hoese DF (1986) Revision of the groupers of the Indo-Pacific genus Plectropomus (Perciformes: Serranidae). Indo Pac Fishes 13:31Google Scholar
  26. Randall JE, Randall HA (1960) Examples of mimicry and protective resemblance in tropical marine fishes. Bull Mar Sci 10:444–480Google Scholar
  27. Randall JE, Allen GR, Steene R (1997) Fishes of the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea. Crawford House, BathurstGoogle Scholar
  28. Russell BC (1976) Disguise, defence and aggression. Aust Nat Hist 18:324–329Google Scholar
  29. Russell BC, Allen GR, Lubbock HR (1976) New cases of mimicry in marine fishes. J Zool 180:407–423Google Scholar
  30. Sanderson GC (1966) The study of mammal movements—a review. J Wildl Manage 30:215–235Google Scholar
  31. Sazima I (2002a) Juvenile snooks (Centropomidae) as mimics of mojarras (Gerreidae), with a review of aggressive mimicry in fishes. Environ Biol Fish 65:37–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Sazima I (2002b) Juvenile grunt (Haemulidae) mimicking a venomous leatherjacket (Carangidae), with a summary of Batesian mimicry in marine fishes. Aqua J Ichtyol Aquat Biol 6:61–68Google Scholar
  33. Sazima I, Uieda VS (1980) Scale-eating behaviour in Oligoplites saurus and record of scale-eating in O. palometa and O. saliens (Pisces, Carangidae). Rev Bras Biol 40:701–710Google Scholar
  34. Siegel JA, Adamson TA (1983) Batesian mimicry between a cardinalfish (Apogonidae) and a venomous scorpionfish (Scorpaenidae) from the Philippine Islands. Pac Sci 37:75–79Google Scholar
  35. Smith-Vaniz WF (1976) The saber-toothed blennies, tribe Nemophini (Pisces: Blennidae). Acad Nat Sci Philadelphia Monogr 19:1–196Google Scholar
  36. Smith-Vaniz WF, Satapoomin U, Allen GR (2001) Meicanthus urostigma, a new fangblenny from the Northeastern Indian Ocean, with discussion and examples of mimicry in species of Meiacanthus (Teleostei: Blenniidae: Nemophini). Aqua J Ichtyol Aquat Biol 5:25–43Google Scholar
  37. Snyder DB (1999) Mimicry of initial-phase bluehead wrasse, Thalassoma bifasciatum (Labridae) by juvenile tiger grouper, Mycteroperca tigris (Serranidae). Rev Fr Aquariol 26:17–20Google Scholar
  38. Snyder DB, Randall JE, Michael SW (2001) Aggressive mimicry by the juvenile of the redmouth grouper Aethaloperca rogaa (Serranidae). Cybium 25:227–232Google Scholar
  39. Springer VG, Smith-Vaniz WF (1972) Mimetic relationships involving fishes of the family Blenniidae. Smithson Contrib Zool 112:1–36Google Scholar
  40. Thresher RE (1978) Polymorphism, mimicry, and the evolution of the hamlets (Hypoplectrus, Serranidae). Bull Mar Sci 28:345–353Google Scholar
  41. Turner JRG (1995) Mimicry as a model for coevolution. In: Arai R, Kato M, Doi Y (eds) Biodiversity and evolution. The National Science Museum Foundation, Tokyo, pp 131–150Google Scholar
  42. Wickler W (1961) Über das Verhalten der Blenniiden Runula und Aspidontus (Pisces; Blenniidae). Z Tierpsychol 18:421–440Google Scholar
  43. Wickler W (1965) Mimicry and the evolution of animal communication. Nature 208:519–521Google Scholar
  44. Wickler W (1968) Mimicry in plants and animals, McGraw Hill, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  45. Zar JH (1999) Biostatistical analysis, Prentice Hall, New JerseyGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Marine Biology and Aquaculture, Centre for Coral Reef BiodiversityJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia

Personalised recommendations