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Fish facing reflections become feisty but fearful

Fish become feisty but fearful when facing themselves in a mirror, according to two Stanford biologists.

"It seems like something they don't understand," said Julie Desjardins, a post-doctoral researcher in biology and lead author of a paper to be published in Biology Letters describing the study. The paper is available online now. "I think this stimulus is just so far outside their realm of experience that it results in this somewhat emotional response."

Desjardins and coauthor Russell Fernald, professor of biology, arrived at their conclusion by comparing the behavior and brain activity of male African cichlid fish during and after one-on-one encounters with either a mirror or other another male of about the same size.

Cichlids grow to several inches in length and territorial males typically have bright blue or yellow body coloration.

Territorial male cichlids usually react to another male by trying to fight with it in a sort of tit-for-tat manner. Desjardins suspects the fish fighting their own reflections become fearful because their enemy in the mirror doesn't exhibit the usual reactions they would expect from another fish.

"In normal fights, they bite at each other, one after the other, and will do all kinds of movements and posturing, but it is always slightly off or even alternating in timing," Desjardins said. "But when you are fighting with a mirror, your opponent is perfectly in time. So the subject fish really is not seeing any sort of reciprocal response from their opponent."

The discovery that fish can discern a difference so subtle could prompt researchers to take a second look at how well other lower invertebrates can discriminate among various situations.

Desjardins and Fernald arranged 20-minute long sparing sessions for their fish. A clear wall across the middle of the tank kept the combatants apart when two fish were pitted against each other, so there was never any

Contact: Louis Bergeron
Stanford University

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