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Keywords:

  • colouration;
  • individual identification;
  • microsatellites;
  • non-invasive sampling;
  • skin swabs

Abstract

In studies of behaviour, ecology and evolution, identification of individual organisms can be an invaluable tool, capable of unravelling otherwise cryptic information regarding group structure, movement patterns, population size and mating strategies. The use of natural markings is arguably the least invasive method for identification. However, to be truly useful natural markings must be sufficiently variable to allow for unique identification, while being stable enough to permit long-term studies. Non-invasive marking techniques are especially important in fishes of the Family Syngnathidae (pipefishes, seahorses and seadragons), as many of these taxa are of conservation concern or used extensively in studies of sexual selection. Here, we assessed the reliability of natural markings as a character for individual identification in a wild population of Nerophis lumbriciformis by comparing results from natural markings to individual genetic assignments based on eight novel microsatellite loci. We also established a minimally invasive method based on epithelial cell swabbing to sample DNA. All pipefish used in the validation of natural markings, independently of sex or time between recaptures, were individually recognized through facial colouration patterns. Their identities were verified by the observation of the same multilocus genotype at every sampling event for each individual that was identified on the basis of natural markings. Successful recaptures of previously swabbed pipefish indicated that this process probably did not induce an elevated rate of mortality. Also, the recapture of newly pregnant males showed that swabbing did not affect reproductive behaviour.