Sophie Picq

Butter hamlets mimic and follow foureye butterflyfish to gain access to prey

Contributed by: Sophie Picq @SofishPicq



Animals, Aquatic, Central America, Community ecology, Competition, Conservation, Ecology, Field, Fundamental research, Marine, Mimicry, Observational, Woman



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Puebla O, Picq S, Lesser JS, Moran B. 2018. Social-trap or mimicry? An empirical evaluation of the Hypoplectrus unicolor – Chaetodon capistratus association in Bocas del Toro, Panama. Coral Reefs 37 (4): 1127-1137 link



Slide 1: Researcher’s Background

Sophie is an evolutionary biologist studying diversity in tropical fishes

PB: Why did you become a biologist?
SP: I love oceans, rivers, fish, being outside, and am fascinated by how diversity, especially in tropical ecosystems, arises and is maintained

PB: What is your favorite part about your job?
SP: Definitely doing a lot of my work outside and even, possibly, underwater

PB: What obstacles have you overcome to get where you are?
SP: Careers in scientific research always seemed so out of reach to me – like they were reserved for the smartest, most dedicated people that had prepared for this kind of job for their entire life. It has been difficult for me to believe that I could become a scientist. Having great mentors has definitely helped me get to where I am, and gathering the courage to try things out, apply, get rejected to some things, try again!

PB: What advice do you have for aspiring biologists?
SP: Make sure you are having fun and are inspired by what you do, that you are learning valuable skills that challenge you, stay curious, and be ready to make your own career path that makes sense to you

PB: Do you feel that any dimension of your identity is invisible or under-represented/marginalized in STEM?
SP: Yes

PB: Can you elaborate on your answer above?
SP: Being a woman in science can be hard.


Slide 2: Research Overview

Take home message of study

Butter hamlets are aggressive mimics of the foureye butterflyfish: they have evolved to look like their non-predatory harmless models and to follow them in order to get closer and attack other fish prey, which are fooled by the resemblance.

Study system

The butter hamlet (Hypoplectrus unicolor) is a predatory species of Caribbean coral reef fish that resembles the harmless foureye butterflyfish (Chaetodon capistratus) in terms of color pattern and has been known to actively track (swim very closely and mimic the swimming behavior) of the foureye butterflyfish while foraging. This is the behavior we see on the video: the fish farthest to the left is a butter hamlet, and he is tracking two butterflyfish! We conducted long-term non-intrusive field observations of butter hamlets that we individually tattooed with temporary markers to better understand the feeding advantages they obtain from such an association with the foureye butterflyfish.


Slide 3: Key Research Points

Main figure

This figure shows the proportion of predatory strikes on different prey items from 19 tagged butter hamlets that were individually observed in their natural habitats for a total of more than 100 hours by two scuba divers. On the left we can see the prey they attack when alone, and on the right we can see the prey they attack when tracking their model, i.e. swimming very closely and following schools of the foureye butterflyfish. Butter hamlets perform more foraging bouts toward glass gobies (small fish) and less towards mysids (tiny shrimp that aggregate in large groups) when tracking their model. This suggests that by mimicking the pattern and the swimming behavior of the foureye butterflyfish, butter hamlets can increase their preying success on these high-value fish targets.


Societal Relevance

Gaining a more complete understanding of coral reef fishes behavior and ecology is crucial to their conservation. Moreover, studying the evolutionary forces that shape inter-species interactions contributes to understanding the fundamentals of how species arise.


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