Journal of Ethology

, Volume 35, Issue 1, pp 109–119 | Cite as

Social plasticity in non-territorial male African cichlid fish Astatotilapia burtoni

  • Andrew G. FulmerEmail author
  • H. Neumeister
  • T. Preuss


The African cichlid fish Astatotilapia burtoni represents a valuable model system for studies of social decision-making due to its socially mediated phenotypic plasticity. The males reversibly transition in social status from reproductively dominant and territorial (DOM) to submissive and non-territorial (SUB). Males are traditionally categorized into these two behavioral phenotypes by observational scoring. There is evidence, however, that this dichotomous categorization might not capture the behavioral plasticity displayed by individuals transitioning between SUB and DOM status. To test this concept, we used focal observations of intrasexual conflict behavior in fish communities combined with a modified analysis of the ethogram typically used in A. burtoni. Results revealed a cluster of males close to the crossover point between SUB and DOM status as defined by the traditional dominance index. These intermediate males showed the highest frequency of intrasexual conflict behaviors, distinct behavioral responses to threats, and body pigment signaling displays that distinguish them from prototypical SUBs and DOMs. As such, our results provide a noninvasive behavioral metric to categorize A. burtoni males into three groups, thus further capturing the complex social dynamic of this model organism.


Social behavior Reversible phenotype Dominance Territoriality Intrasexual competition 



The authors are grateful to M. E. Hauber for his suggestions, H. Hofmann for valuable comments and discussion, Z. Baranov for valuable input, members of the Preuss lab for maintaining fish, and for funding provided by the following sources: a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship issued to A. Fulmer (No. 2012143588), and National Science Foundation grants IOS 0946637 and IOS 11471172 issued to T. Preuss. Additionally, we are grateful to earlier reviewers for helpful comments.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest. All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. The regulations of the Hunter College CUNY IACUC were followed at all stages of this study.


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Copyright information

© Japan Ethological Society and Springer Japan 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Training Area in Animal Behavior and Comparative Psychology, Graduate CenterCity University of New YorkNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Department of Psychology, Hunter CollegeCity University of New YorkNew YorkUSA

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