Coral degredation impairs learning of non-predators by Whitetail damselfish

Chivers, Douglas; McCormick, Mark; Faken, Eric; Edmiston, Jake; Ferrari, Maud

The threat of predation is pervasive in the life of most prey animals. Prey must quickly assess the identity of all animals that they encounter. Many animals are predators, but many are not, and being able to quickly distinguish between the two is crucial for potential prey. If young animals can learn the identity of nonpredators, then they can quickly identify animals that can be ignored, and they can avoid wasting valuable time and energy avoiding animals that are not a threat.
Here we examined the ability of juvenile whitetail damselfish to learn the odour of species of wrasse as a non-predator. They do so when they are repeatedly exposed to the odour but are not threatened. Damselfish that learned the identity of one species of wrasse (moon wrasse) as a non-predator used this information to make educated guesses that other wrasse were also nonpredators, a process termed generalization. However, their ability to recognize wrasses as a nonpredator, and generalize this information, broke down in degraded coral habitats. Dead coral habitats interfere with the odour signature of animals and compromises the ability of damselfish to distinguish animals that are safe from those that are threatening.

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