Rules of engagement for resource contests in a social fish
A rich theoretical framework exists for understanding animal conflict. When two opponents fight over a resource, the duration, intensity and outcome of the fight ought to be determined in large part by the relative difference in resource-holding power between contestants. While our understanding of one-time conflict resolution is excellent, our knowledge is still limited of how these rules scale up when contests occur in a social context where individuals have long-term interactions. Here, we use a convenient model system, Neolamprologus pulcher, a small cooperatively breeding cichlid fish, to explore decisions in pairwise contests over resources in a species where two individual contestants are likely to remain in the same social group, and regularly and repeatedly interact. Contests began after approximately 1 min, with a short display phase, and continued in an aphasic manner for an average of 10 min before a clear winner emerged. Information about opponents' body size was important when deciding on the giving-up point, but contestants' own body size was not, suggesting that assessment of opponent size is paramount in contest decision making. No sex differences were detected in contest structure, duration or intensity, and contests between males or between females were indistinguishable. These results offer an important window on conflict in a cooperative breeder and shed insight on rules of engagement within hierarchical social groups.