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Sensory determinants of agonistic interactions in the red-backed salamander, Plethodon cinereus

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Many animals use and react to multimodal signals — signals that occur in more than one sensory modality. This study focused on the respective roles of vision, chemoreception, and their possible interaction in determining agonistic responses of the red-backed salamander, Plethodon cinereus. The use of a computer display allowed separate or combined presentation of visual and chemical cues. A cue isolation experiment using adult male and juvenile salamanders showed that both visual and chemical cues from unfamiliar male conspecifics could increase aggressive displays. Submissive displays were only increased in juveniles, and specifically by the visual cue. The rate of chemoinvestigation of the substrate was increased only by chemical cues in adults, whereas both chemical and visual cues increased this behaviour in juveniles. Chemoinvestigation appears, thus, more dependent on sensory input in juvenile salamanders. A follow-up experiment comparing responses to visual cues of different animals (conspecific salamander, heterospecific salamander and earthworm) or an inanimate object (wood stick) showed that exploratory behaviour was higher in the presence of the inanimate object stimulus. The heterospecific salamander stimulus produced strong submissive and escape responses, while the conspecific salamander stimulus promoted aggressive displays. Finally, the earthworm stimulus increased both aggressive and submissive behaviours at intermediate levels when compared to salamander cues. These specific combinations of agonistic and exploratory responses to each stimulus suggest that salamanders could discriminate the cues visually. This study sheds some light on how information from different sensory modalities guides social behaviour at different life stages in a salamander.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Integrative Biology, University of Guelph, 50 Stone Road East, Guelph, ON, Canada N1G 2W1


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