Mimicry in coral reef fishes: ecological and behavioural responses of a mimic to its model


* All correspondence to: J. v Eagle. E-mail: janelle.eagle@jcu.edu.au


Mimicry is a widely documented phenomenon in coral reef fishes, but the underlying relationships between mimics and models are poorly understood. Juveniles of the surgeonfish Acanthurus pyroferus mimic the coloration of different pygmy angelfish Centropyge spp. at different locations throughout the geographic range of the surgeonfish, while adopting a common species-specific coloration as adults. This study examines the ecological and behavioural relationships between A pyroferus and one of its models, Centropyge vroliki, in Papua New Guinea. Surgeonfish underwent a transition from the juvenile (mimetic) coloration to the adult (non-mimetic) coloration when they reached the maximum size of the angelfish. As typical of mimic–model relationships, mimic surgeonfish were always less abundant than their model. Spatial variation in the abundance of mimics was correlated with models, while the abundance of adults was not. We show that juvenile surgeonfish gain a foraging advantage by mimicking the angelfish. Mimic surgeonfish were always found within 1–2 m of a similar-sized individual of C. vroliki with which they spent c. 10% of their time in close association. When in association with angelfish, juvenile surgeonfish exhibited an increase of c. 10% in the amount of time spent feeding compared to when they were alone. This foraging benefit seems to be explained by reduced aggression by the territorial damselfish Plectroglyphidon lacrymatus, which dominates the reef crest habitat. While adult A. pyroferus and all other surgeonfish were aggressively displaced from damselfish territories, mimic surgeonfish and their models were attacked less frequently and were not always displaced. Stomach contents analysis showed that the diet of C. vroliki differed substantially from P. lacrymatus, while that of A. pyroferus was more similar to the damselfish. We hypothesize that mimics deceive damselfish as to their diet in order to gain access to food supplies in defended areas.