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Social Reversal of Sex-Biased Aggression and Dominance in a Biparental Cichlid Fish (Julidochromis marlieri)

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Abstract

In biparental species, aggression, dominance, and parental care are typically sexually dimorphic. While behavioral dimorphism is often strongly linked to gonadal sex, the environment—either social or ecological—may also influence sex-biased behavior. In the biparental cichlid fish Julidochromis marlieri, the typical social environment for breeding pairs consists of large females paired with smaller males. While both sexes are capable of providing territory defense and parental care, the larger female provides the majority of defense for the pair, while the smaller male remains in the nest guarding their offspring. We examine the contributions of sex and relative mate size to these sex-biased behaviors in monogamous J. marlieri pairs. Both female-larger and male-larger pairs were formed in the laboratory and were observed for territorial aggression (against conspecifics and heterospecifics), dominance, and parental care. In female-larger pairs, territorial aggression and intra-pair dominance were female-biased, while in male-larger pairs this bias was reversed. For both pairing types, the presence of an intruder amplified sex differences in territorial aggression, with the larger fish always attacking with greater frequency than its mate. Though less robust, there was evidence for plasticity of sex-bias for some egg care related behaviors in the inverse direction. Our study suggests that relative mate size strongly influences the sex bias of aggression and dominance in J. marlieri and that this aspect of the social environment can override the influence of gonadal sex on an individual's behavior. The remarkable plasticity of this species makes Julidochromis an exciting model that could be used to address the relationship between proximate and ultimate mechanisms of behavioral plasticity.

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