While One Rabbitfish Feeds The Other Watches Its Back

A new study points to reciprocal cooperation when rabbitfish are eating algae on the reef.

Foxface Rabbitfish (Siganus vulpinus). Via shankar s./Flickr

Rabbitfish have shown to cooperate with each other when feeding, a trait that was thought to be impossible with fish. According to a study with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Australia, rabbitfish look after each other quite keenly when feeding. When one fish is eating off the reef, the other fish is literally standing up, watching for potential predators.

Rabbitfish have been found to cooperate when feeding. Photo by Jordan Casey

“We found that rabbitfish pairs coordinate their vigilance activity quite strictly, thereby providing safety for their foraging partner,” Dr. Simon Brandl from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies said in a statement.

“In other words, one partner stays ‘on guard’ while the other feeds – these fishes literally watch each others’ back,” Dr. Brandl said. “This behaviour is so far unique among fishes and appears to be based on reciprocal cooperation between pair members.”

This type of behavior, which scientists call reciprocal cooperation, was thought to require not only complex cognitive skills but complex social skills as well, skills that scientists previously believed that fishes lacked. The new research shows that there is cooperation between rabbitfish pairs.

“There has been a long standing debate about whether reciprocal cooperation can exist in animals that lack the highly developed cognitive and social skills found in humans and a few species of birds and primates,” Dr. Brandl said.

“By showing that fishes, which are commonly considered to be cold, unsocial, and unintelligent, are capable of negotiating reciprocal cooperative systems, we provide evidence that cooperation may not be as exclusive as previously assumed.”

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Article Categories:
Fish · Saltwater Fish