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He who dares only wins sometimes: physiological stress and contest behaviour in Xiphophorus helleri

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While many factors influence contest outcome and social dominance in animals, there is increasing interest in behavioural-physiological stress-coping styles. Causality, however, is often ambiguous; is physiological state determined by contest outcome or vice versa? Furthermore, experimental protocols may themselves induce stress responses that impact individual behaviour and, thus, potentially contest outcome. Here we test whether latency to recover from acute stress, measured both physiologically and behaviourally, predicts who initiates and who wins dyadic contests between pairs of male green swordtails (Xiphophorous helleri). In line with our predictions, animals that recovered faster (behaviourally) from disturbance created by the experimental protocol prior to meeting an opponent were more likely to initiate contests; however, they were not more likely to win and, contrary to expectations, had higher pre-contest cortisol levels than their opponents. They also showed greater physiological stress responses to the experiment as determined from the difference between pre- and post-contest cortisol levels. Moreover, stress response was independent of whether a contest escalated. In contradiction to evidence found in other taxa and fish systems, the suite of traits that we measured were not correlated in a manner that allowed classification of the animals into the usual reactive and proactive stress-coping styles. Our results suggest that coping style may play a key role in determining which individual initiates a contest, but that other factors govern contest outcome.

Affiliations: 1: aInstitute of Evolutionary Biology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh, Ashworth Laboratories, King’s Buildings, West Mains Road, Edinburgh, EH9 3JT, UK; 2: bDepartment of Biological Sciences, University of Alabama, 300 Hackberry Lane, Box 870344, SEC Building, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487, USA; 3: cDaphne du Maurier Building, Centre for Ecology and Conservation, Biosciences, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, Cornwall Campus, Treliever Road, Penryn, Cornwall, TR10 9EZ, UK


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