Magazine article Science News

Fish Allurement That Predators Don't See. (Secret Signal)

Magazine article Science News

Fish Allurement That Predators Don't See. (Secret Signal)

Article excerpt

In a rare demonstration of secret messaging in animals, a swordtail fish uses ultraviolet (UV) wavelengths as a private courtship channel, biologists now report.

Males sport bold UV-reflecting horizontal stripes that attract feminine interest, says Molly E. Cummings of the University of Texas at Austin. She and her colleagues also found that the fish's main predator doesn't see this UV finery. Males, therefore, can court conspicuously without increasing the danger of becoming somebody's dinner, Cummings and her colleagues report in an upcoming issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B.

"We are the first group to provide direct behavioral evidence of a private visual communications channel," Cummings says.

Studies in the 1980s showed that if researchers stocked artificial streams with aggressive predators, populations of guppies there shifted during 14 generations to subdued coloration. In comparable setups with less-threatening predators, however, flashy, golden spots became prominent in guppy populations.

Cummings and her colleagues discovered that male Xiphophorus nigrensis swordtails sport sexy, UV-reflecting stripes. Cummings says this probably explains why some 14 years of earlier experiments by her Austin collaborator Michael J. Ryan and his associates hadn't yielded clear indications of female preferences for swords. The old setups inadvertently blocked UV signals, she says.

In new tests, she and her colleagues placed a female in a tank with a male visible in a compartment at each end. …

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