Experimental confirmation of aggressive mimicry by a coral reef fish

Abstract

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.

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Acknowledgements

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.

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Correspondence to Geoffrey P. Jones.

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Moland, E., Jones, G.P. Experimental confirmation of aggressive mimicry by a coral reef fish. Oecologia 140, 676–683 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-004-1637-9

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Keywords

  • Colour change
  • Facultative mimicry
  • Foraging success
  • Labroides dimidiatus
  • Plagiotremus rhinorhynchos