Does humic acid alter visually and chemically guided foraging in stickleback fish?


Sensory systems function under the influence of multiple, interacting environmental properties. When environments change, so may perception through one or more sensory systems, as alterations in transmission properties may change how organisms obtain and use information. Humic acids, a natural and anthropogenically produced class of chemicals, have attributes that may change chemical and visual environments of aquatic animals, potentially with detrimental consequences on their ability to locate necessary resources. Here, we explore how environmental disturbance affects the way threespine sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus) use visual and olfactory information during foraging. We compared foraging behavior using visual, olfactory, and bimodal (visual and olfactory) information in the presence and absence of humic acids. We found evidence that humic acids reduced olfactory-based food detection. While visual perception was not substantially impaired by humic acids, the visual sense alone did not compensate for the loss of olfactory perception. These findings suggest that a suite of senses still may not be capable of compensating for the loss of information from individual modalities. Thus, senses may react disparately to rapid environmental change, and thereby push species into altered evolutionary trajectories.

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We are grateful to Marquita Tillotson and Savannah Foster for their assistance in carrying out behavioral trials and data collection, as well as the members of the Boughman lab who provided animal care. We thank Courtney Larson, Miranda Wade, Scott Warner, Nikki Cavalieri, Murielle Ålund, the BEACON Chemical Communication Group, and two anonymous reviewers for useful comments in preparation of this manuscript. Nicole Jess, Andrew Denhardt and MSU CSTAT provided valuable statistical consultation. This work was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation to JWB.


This study was funded by a National Science Foundation Career Grant (Career Grant deb-0952659) and a National Science Foundation Dimensions of Biodiversity Grant (deb-1638778), awarded to JWB.

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Correspondence to Robert B. Mobley.

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All the applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. All the procedures performed in studies involving animals were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institution or practice at which the studies were conducted (Michigan State University Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee permit number 04/13-092-00).

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Mobley, R.B., Weigel, E.G. & Boughman, J.W. Does humic acid alter visually and chemically guided foraging in stickleback fish?. Anim Cogn 23, 101–108 (2020).

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  • Vision
  • Olfaction
  • Humic acid
  • Multimodal shift
  • Habitat change