The Cleaning gobies behavorial variation projectMon 16 May, 2016
Renata Mazzei is studying the behavior of cleaning gobies in Barbados. The title of her research project is: “Cleaning gobies behavioral variation project”, associated with her Ph.D. studies at the University of Neuchâtel, under the supervision of the Professor Redouan Bshary (University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland) and Dr. Marta Soares (University of Porto, Portugal).
The project has a very integrative approach and utilizes elaborate methods of neighboring disciplines such as molecular genetics and animal neuro-endocrinology. The aim of the study is to better understand the physiological and cognitive mechanisms (proximate causes), and also the costs and benefits (ultimate causes) associated with the intra-specific behavioral variation of cleaning gobies.
As a model species, we selected the Caribbean Broadstripe goby, Elacatinus prochilos, a species found in abundance from the Lesser Antilles to the western Caribbean.
The Broadstripe gobies exhibit two alternative behavioral phenotypes:
(i) cleaning individuals, which are usually found in pairs or small groups, and feed on ectoparasites, dead tissue or mucus of other fish species
(ii) sponge-dwelling individuals, which are organized in larger groups with dominance hierarchies, and that feed on micro-organisms living inside the sponges’ tissue. This system provides a very interesting opportunity to understand how intraspecific behavioral variation affects animal population dynamics. This project is also part of an international comparative approach that seeks to understand which physiological and behavioral mechanisms and evolutionary contexts could have given rise to cooperative behavior in different marine groups.
Barbados was selected as the study area for this project due to the number of previous scientific studies done on the species in the region. We are utilizing The Bellairs Research Institute facilities situated on the West coast of Barbados to develop our research. Our work consists essentially of field observations and aquarium experiments. For example, in the aquariums we have exposed gobies from both phenotypes to a frequent client species, Haemulon flavolineatum, and then observed and recorded their reactions. We discovered that 5 of the 6 cleaning individuals interacted with the client species, while only two sponge-dwellers engaged in cleaning interactions. For the next visit to Barbados, we are planning new field and aquarium experiments in an effort to learn more about the flexibility and behavioral capacities of both phenotypes.
Through the Caribaea Initiative Association, we are providing some local students with the opportunity to improve their skills in the areas of scientific diving, data collection, field and laboratory research techniques, marine species identification as well as the opportunity improve their critical thinking. Master’s and undergraduate students will be invited to participate in the field activities and in aquarium experiments related to this project. Furthermore, local master’s students will be offered the chance to develop future research projects involving this same model species. This species offers a suitable model for studies on fish cognition, on the effects of climate change on fish behavior and physiology, and on behavioral genetics.
Neuchatel University, Switzerland