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Piddling fish face off threat of competition

December 12, 2007

Aggressive territorial male Mozambique tilapia fish (Oreochromis mossambicus) send chemical messages to rival males via their urine. They increase urination, have smellier urine and store more in their bladders than less aggressive males, according to research published in the open access journal BMC Biology. Animal behaviourists have known for some time that the urine of freshwater fish is a vehicle for reproductive hormones that act in the water as pheromones, affecting the behaviour and physiology of members of the opposite sex. Now, this research sheds light on the role of urine in influencing members of the same sex.

"Few studies have looked at the roles of pheromones in urine during competition between individuals of the same sex. We've found that tilapia dominant males store more urine in their bladders than subordinates, actively urinate during times of confrontation and the urine's olfactory potency or smell strength is even greater," explained Eduardo Barata, who led the Portuguese research.

As a lekking species - where males group together in the same area to breed, never leaving their nest, not even to feed - social hierarchy is important for the cichlid fish from Africa. Males actively advertise their dominant status through urinary odorants, which are thought to control aggression in rival males and so maintain social stability within the area, or lek. By measuring male urination frequency during competition, Barata et al. found that dominant or 'resident' males increased urination frequency in the presence of 'intruder' males from once every ten minutes to once every minute. Dominant males stopped urination when their opponent gave up, indicating a close link between aggression and urination rate. By also collecting urine and measuring the volume over five days and evaluating olfactory potency using an electro-olfactogram, it was seen that subordinate males also stored less urine and the urine was less smelly than that of dominant males.

"We know pheromones are involved in reproductive and non-reproductive behaviours of fish, for example during migration, mating and schooling," explained Barata. "While we do not yet know what these chemicals are, it is clear they play a major role in many aspects of tilapia social behaviour by providing information about the fish's aggressive capabilities for instance. This is also probably not unique to tilapia, so we're touching the tip of the urinary pheromone iceberg!" concluded Barata.
-end-
Notes to Editors:

1. Pheromones are chemicals that trigger adaptive physiological and behavioural responses, and fish release them into the water via urine, skin and faeces.

2. Mozambique tilapia are endemic to the lakes and rivers of the east African coast. Males turn black during the breeding season and defend small territories centred on pit-like nests they dig in the sand. Females visit and spawn in these territories but brood eggs and rear young in a separate area.

3. Images available upon request.

4. Male urine signals social rank in the Mozambique tilapia (Oreochromis mossambicus, Peters 1852)
Eduardo N Barata, Peter C Hubbard, Olinda G Almeida, Antonio Miranda and Adelino V M Canario BMC Biology (12 December 2007)

To view the published article, please visit the journal website: http://www.biomedcentral.com/bmcbiol/

Please name the journal in any story you write. If you are writing for the web, please link to the article. All articles are available free of charge, according to BioMed Central's open access policy.

5. BMC Biology - the flagship biology journal of the BMC series - publishes research and methodology articles of special importance and broad interest in any area of biology and biomedical sciences. BMC Biology (ISSN 1741-7007) is covered by PubMed, Scopus, CAS, BIOSIS, Zoological Record and Google Scholar. The journal is tracked by Thomson Scientific (ISI) and will receive its first Impact Factor in 2008.

6. BioMed Central is an independent online publishing house committed to providing immediate access without charge to the peer-reviewed biological and medical research it publishes. This commitment is based on the view that open access to research is essential to the rapid and efficient communication of science.

BioMed Central

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