Edinburgh, Fife & East Scotland

Anti-social male fish 'won't ask for directions'

ninespine sticklebacks
Image caption The ninespine stickleback is known to be capable of sophisticated social learning behaviour

Male fish refuse to ask for directions when they are breeding, according to new research.

A study by the University of St Andrews has suggested male fish turn into anti-social feeders, especially when they are ready to reproduce.

As a result, they take bigger risks by leaving the shoal behind.

Researchers claim it is one of the first studies to reveal a sex difference in how animals learn from each other.

They believe the fact that it is only seen in male fish when they are breeding may be related to the different pressures faced by the sexes when reproducing.

The study was undertaken by Dr Mike Webster and Professor Kevin Laland, who set out to examine the learning and copying behaviour of the ninespine stickleback.

This fish is known to be capable of sophisticated social learning behaviour, gathering and using information from others about the location and quality of food resources.

Yet during the recent study, the St Andrews team found the male of the species spurned such information when ready to breed.

Rather than use their usual reliance on information available from others, they did the exact opposite - leaving the safety of the shoal to hunt alone for food reserves.

The researchers were surprised to find that taking the risk was more likely to yield positive results.

Dr Webster explained: "Over the last few years we have learned the surprising extent of the cognitive capabilities of many species of fish, and recent research has shown that rather than blindly copying others, fish are selective in when they copy and even who they learn from.

"Reproductive males seem to behave in a way which courts risk - they are more active, spend more time in the open and spend less time shoaling with others. However this may be adaptive if it allows them to forage more efficiently."

The behaviour of the male fish was a complete contrast to egg-laden females, who instead increased their reliance on information from others.

They spent more time in the areas where they had seen others feeding at a high rate and were less likely to switch between feeding grounds to investigate them for themselves.

By copying others and sticking to the shoal, they saved energy and lessened the likelihood of encountering a predator.

The males, on the other hand, needed to source food reserves so that they could spend as much time guarding and raising their young as possible.

Dr Webster added: "We are all familiar with the stereotype of males refusing to ask for directions - this might apply to fish too, but only when they are preparing to breed."

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