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Individual voices in a cluttered soundscape: acoustic ecology of the Bocon toadfish, Amphichthys cryptocentrus


Toadfishes (family Batrachoididae) are a well-studied family of soniferous fishes, yet only a fraction of species within the family have been recorded, and only few detailed descriptions of calls exist. Here, we present the first description of the acoustic ecology of Amphyichtys cryptocentrus, a new-world toadfish species, distributed across the southern Caribbean Sea. We recorded fourteen individuals in a seagrass habitat over six nights in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago. Like other toadfishes, A. cryptocentrus produces compound calls with broadband and tonal components; a typical call contains 1–2 grunts, followed by 1–2 boops (average fundamental frequency = 112 Hz, average source level = 138 dB re:1 μPa RMS). While we observed relatively low between-individual variation in frequency components, our results show that individuals can be readily identified based on their call composition and call rate. This suggests that each toadfish has an individual “voice,” which may transmit selection-linked information to females about body condition, status, or motivation to mate. We also observed that toadfish produced grunts during neighbors’ calls, a previously-described aggressive behavior called “acoustic tagging”, which can intercept a potential rival’s mating advertisement. Our findings suggest that A. cryptocentrus (and its population in Bocas del Toro, in particular) represents a useful system for the study of fish bioacoustics and behavioral ecology, and we demonstrate that acoustic communication represents a major aspect of social behavior in coral reef fishes.

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We thank the team at the Bocas del Toro research station, the students in the 2016 Three Seas Program, and Matt Ogburn and Denise Breitburg for their support with this project. We also appreciate the thoughtful suggestions from Michael Fine and one anonymous reviewer, which helped improve the analysis and quality of the manuscript. This research was conducted under permit # SE/AP-2-16 and STRI IACUC approval 2016-0101-2019. The Smithsonian MarineGEO Post-doctoral fellowships supported E. Staaterman and S. Brandl, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s visiting research fellowship supported A. Gallagher, and Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s internship program supported M. Hauer.

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Correspondence to Erica Staaterman.

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All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. All procedures performed in this study were in accordance with the ethical standards of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. This research was conducted under permit # SE/AP-2-16 and STRI IACUC approval 2016–0101-2019.

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Staaterman, E., Brandl, S.J., Hauer, M. et al. Individual voices in a cluttered soundscape: acoustic ecology of the Bocon toadfish, Amphichthys cryptocentrus. Environ Biol Fish 101, 979–995 (2018).

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  • Toadfish
  • Batrachoididae
  • Acoustic communication
  • Sound propagation
  • Individual recognition