The initial response of females towards congeneric males matches the propensity to hybridise in Ophthalmotilapia

Maarten Van Steenberge, Noémie Jublier, Loïc Kéver, Sophie Gresham, Sophie Derycke, Jos Snoeks, Eric Parmentier, Pascal Poncin, Erik Verheyen


Cichlid radiations often harbour closely related species with overlapping niches and distribution ranges. Such species sometimes hybridise in nature, which raises the question how they can coexist. This also holds for the Tanganyika mouthbrooders Ophthalmotilapia ventralis and O. nasuta. Earlier studies found indications of asymmetrical hybridisation with females of O. ventralis accepting males of O. nasuta, but not the other way around. We hypothesised that this was due to differences in the capacity for species recognition. Given the higher propensity of O. ventralis females towards hybridisation, we expect a reduced ability for species recognition in O. ventralis females, compared to O. nasuta females. We staged two experiments, one focusing on 22 female O. nasuta and one on 21 female O. ventralis. These fish were placed in one half of a tank and briefly exposed to a conspecific or a heterospecific male, a conspecific female, or nothing (control). Female response was evaluated by scoring six tracking parameters and by noting the occurrence of ten discrete behaviours before and during the encounter. Females always responded to the presence of another fish by approaching it. Remarkably, for both O. nasuta and O. ventralis, we did not find a different response between encounters with conspecific males and females. However, in agreement with our hypothesis, females of O. nasuta behaved differently towards conspecific or heterospecific males, whereas females of O. ventralis did not. When presented with a heterospecific male, females of O. nasuta performed a lower number of ‘ram’ behaviours. Additionally, they never displayed the ‘flee’ behaviour, a component of the species’ mating repertoire that was seen in all but one of the presentations with a conspecific male. Our findings show that differences in species recognition at first encounter predict to a large degree the outcome of the mating process, even in the absence of mating behaviour.


species recognition; mate choice; behaviour; Lake Tanganyika; Africa

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