Integration of “Innate” and “Learned” Components within the IRME for Mussel Recognition in the European Bitterling Rhodeus amarus (Bloch)


Institut für Zoologie (Abt. Ethologie), Universität Wien, A-1090 Wien.


The European bitterling (Rhodeus amarus Bloch) practises a rather unusual method of spawning by using the favorable conditions in the gills of a living freshwater mussel (genera Unio and Anodonta) for the embryonic development of its fry. The capacity of mussel recognition was studied in inexperienced individuals with the aid of simultaneous preference tests in which pairs of dummies with increasing similarity to mussels were presented to the animals. The frequency of mussel-referred motor patterns, which were supposed to be species-specific (Wiepkema 1961), supplied the evaluation criterion. The results revealed a hierarchy of effectiveness within the class of relevant stimuli and showed certain effects of additivity typical of an Innate Releasing Mechanism or IRM. By far the most effective stimulus consisted in the specific smell of the mussel which is composed of at least three constituents (protein, hyaluronic acid, ammonium). The water flow itself, produced by the mussel in order to maintain nutritive and respiratory functions, was effective depending on its velocity (3 < v < 12 cm/s), its orientation (suction produced no effect), its direction (vertical > horizontal) and the shape of its field (oval). Within the visual modality only two simple perceptory patterns could be detected (dark spot on a clearer surface, straight horizontal edge), but the visual shape of the mussel as a whole was ignored by inexperienced individuals. Nevertheless the bitterlings are able to learn the shape when exposed to a living mussel and, in addition, it was even possible to condition the animals to an artificial object (inverted pot of clay) by using the mussel-smell flow as a reinforcing stimulus. The final discussion deals with the question of whether it is possible to interpret these “innate” respectively “learned” components of the IRME as sensory counterparts of behavioral structures which simply serve different functions by referring to correspondingly different sectors of the environment. In such a case the epistemological dichotomy regularly associated with the notions of “innate” (= “pre-given phylogenetical knowledge”) and “learned” (= “cognitive increase during ontogeny”) would suffer incisive questioning.