Aggression and RHP in the Northern Swordtail Fish, Xiphophorus cortezi: The Relationship Between Size and Contest Dynamics in Male–Male Competition


Jason A. Moretz, Department of Biological Sciences, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio 45701, USA. E-mail:


Current theory predicts that contest outcome, as well as decisions on whether to initiate a contest, escalate during a contest or retreat are decided by asymmetries in resource holding potential (RHP) and/or expected payoffs between contestants. In this investigation, dyadic contests were staged between male swordtail fish (Xiphophorus cortezi) where individuals were paired based on cumulative fight records and were ranked at the end of the trials in order to approximate RHP. Size was the only asymmetry that I did not attempt to control for and as a result, I was able to determine the relationships between size, contest initiation, escalation and outcome. Individuals changed their contest initiation strategy based on their size relative to that of their opponents, and contrary to predictions, the smaller of the two males in each contest was more likely to initiate the conflict than was the larger male. However, the larger of the two males was more likely to win and standard length proved to be a moderate predictor of an individual's final rank. Regardless of size, initiators fared poorly, winning only 31% of the contests. In instances where the smaller males won the contests, they were no more likely to initiate the encounter than was the larger male. However, when small males did win, fights lasted longer, suggesting that in some cases smaller males may be able to outlast their opponents.