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Models of optimal territory size are usually tested only by demonstrating that territory size is inversely related to food abundance or intruder number. The most fundamental predictions of the models, however, have rarely been tested: i.e. the fitness of the defender is a function of territory size and the optimal territory is one of intermediate size. We tested these predictions by measuring the growth rate of large convict cichlids (Archocentrus nigrofasciatus, formerly Cichlasoma nigrofasciatum) while defending food patches against smaller intruders over a 10-day period. Food patches differed in area by more than two orders of magnitude. We manipulated food abundance so that it increased with patch size in a decelerating way. As assumed, the realized benefits of defence (weight of food eaten by the defender) and the costs of defence (chase rate and chase radius) both increased in a decelerating way with increasing patch area. As predicted, the growth rate of the defender first increased and then decreased with increasing patch size. The initial increase in defender growth rate with increasing patch size was related to an increase in food eaten, but the decrease in growth rate for fish defending the largest patches was related to the costs of defence. Fish defending large patches had a low growth efficiency, apparently because of the social stress caused by intruders in their territories. Taken together, these results support the assumptions and predictions of optimal territory size models.


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