Size, sex and social experience: Experimental tests of multiple factors mediating contest behaviour in a rockpool fish
Aggressive contests amongst conspecifics are important to understand from an ecological and evolutionary perspective as contest dynamics can directly influence individual fitness. For some species, individual attributes such as relative body size closely predict the outcome, intensity and duration of contests, whereas for others, prior social experiences play a key role. However, disentangling the relative effects of individual attributes and social experiences is challenging from an experimental perspective, and because of this, few studies have investigated relative effects of multiple factors. Rockpool fishes have been well studied in terms of factors governing abundance, distribution and community structure, but much less so in terms of contest behaviour. This is surprising because contest dynamics are likely to directly affect the distribution of fishes along the rocky shore, and hence indirectly govern population and community composition. Here, we explored multiple factors potentially influencing contest behaviour in a numerically dominant, resident intertidal fish species, Bathygobius cocosensis (Gobiidae). Using a series of staged pairwise contest trials, we investigated the effect of size, sex and social experiences (namely prior residency and winner-loser experiences) on contest dynamics. We found no evidence that prior residency influenced contest outcome, suggesting social experiences play a minor role in contest dynamics. Previous winner/loser experience also did not influence contest outcome, although this is likely a product of low sample size. In addition, the likelihood of winning was unrelated to contestant sex, and the combination of sexes in paired contests did not influence contest intensity or duration. Instead, body size was related to contest outcome, intensity and duration in the majority of experimental trials. These results suggest that body size rather than sex or social experiences is the key determinant of contest dynamics in this species. We suggest that the dynamic biotic and abiotic environment inhabited by intertidal fish may reduce the influence of prior social experiences in modulating contest dynamics.