Bachelor of Science, University of California San Diego (2005)
Doctor of Philosophy, University of California Los Angeles (2012)
Russell Fernald, Postdoctoral Faculty Sponsor
Life experiences can alter cognitive abilities and subsequent behavior. Here we asked whether differences in experience could affect social status. In hierarchical animal societies, high-ranking males that typically win aggressive encounters gain territories and hence access to mates. To understand the relative contributions of social experience and physical environment on status, we used a highly territorial African cichlid fish species, Astatotilapia burtoni, that lives in a dynamic lek-like social hierarchy. Astatotilapia burtoni males are either dominant or submissive and can switch status rapidly depending on the local environment. Although dominant males are innately aggressive, we wondered whether they modulated their aggression based on experience. We hypothesized that as males mature they might hone their fighting tactics based on observation of other males fighting. We compared males of different ages and sizes in distinctly different physical environments and subsequently tested their fighting skills. We found that a size difference previously thought negligible (<10% body length) gave a significant advantage to the larger opponent. In contrast, we found no evidence that increasing environmental complexity affected status outcomes. Surprisingly, we found that males only a few days older than their opponents had a significant advantage during territorial disputes so that being older compensated for the disadvantage of being smaller. Moreover, the slightly older winners exploited a consistent fighting strategy, starting with lower levels of aggression on the first day that significantly increased on the second day, a pattern absent in younger winners. These data suggest that experience is an advantage during fights for status, and that social learning provides more relevant experience than the physical complexity of the territory.
View details for DOI 10.1242/jeb.097527
View details for Web of Science ID 000335583500014