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Shoaling decisions in female swordtails: how do fish gauge group size?

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Little is known about the mechanisms individuals might use to compare group sizes when making decisions about group membership. One possibility is that animals use ratio to determine differences in group sizes. Weber's Law states that the ease of any numerical comparison is based on the ratio between the stimuli compared; as the ratio becomes smaller the comparison becomes more difficult. We set out to test this prediction by offering female green swordtails, Xiphophorus helleri, dichotomous choices between different shoal sizes, varying both in ratios and absolute numbers of fish. Swordtails attended to the ratio of group size between stimulus shoals, rather than the numerical difference between shoals, when making shoaling decisions. Where group size ratio was 2:1, subjects showed a significant preference for the larger shoal, independent of the numerical difference between the shoals. When the ratio was 1.5:1, subjects showed no preference. The ratio between group sizes may, thus, be an important factor in shoaling decisions. More broadly, ratio could prove to be a widespread mechanism for animals to make numerical comparisons in group assessments.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Biology, Boston University, Boston, MA, USA


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