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Abstract

Numerous species, both aquatic and terrestrial, use alarm cues to mediate predation risk. These cues may be either intentionally or inadvertently released, and may be received by either conspecifics or heterospecifics. In aquatic systems, alarm cues are often chemical in nature and are released when an organism is disturbed or damaged by a predator. In some cases the recognition of alarm cues from conspecifics, or closely related heterospecifics, is innate, while the recognition of alarm cues from distantly related species must be learned. Many studies have documented the use of heterospecific alarm cues, but few have explored the manner in which these cues come to be recognized as an indication of predation. In the current study, we examined the fathead minnow (Pimephales promelas)/brook stickleback (Culaea inconstans) alarm system. We tested the effect of density on the ability of minnows to learn to recognize stickleback alarm cues as a threat. We hypothesized that the ability of minnows to learn to recognize stickleback alarm cues should increase with increasing stickleback density because there would be more opportunity for minnows to associate the heterospecific alarm cue with the threat. To test this hypothesis we stocked minnows into large outdoor pools with no stickleback, low numbers of stickleback, or high numbers of stickleback. All pools contained a predator (pike, Esox lucius) known to the minnows. Following a 14 d conditioning period, minnows were tested for a response to skin extract from stickleback, minnow, and an unknown heterospecific (swordtail, Xiphophorus helleri). Minnows from pools with large numbers of stickleback learned to respond to stickleback alarm cues while minnows from pools with low numbers of stickleback, or no stickleback, did not.