Behavioral specialization in developing sciaenids and its relationship to morphology and habitat

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Environmental Biology of Fishes





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Behavioral development of three species of marine sciaenid fish larvae was examined and related to their sensory morphology and habitat. Anti-predator behavior of the larvae was examined under different experimental conditions to isolate the roles of vision and mechanoreception. Spotted seatrout larvae maintained high levels of responsiveness even without visual cues but performed very poorly without mechanoreception. Loss of visual cues had no impact on the distance at which seatrout responded to the stimulus. Atlantic croaker generally performed best when vision was available. This species had low responsiveness without visual stimuli, and had smaller reactive distances when unable to use vision. Red drum were the most flexible in their use of sensory systems. For almost the entire larva period, responsiveness of red drum was equally high regardless of which sensory system was not available. In addition, reactive distances were unaffected when either visual or mechanoreceptive stimuli were eliminated. Thus, seatrout and croaker are sensory specialists, and red drum are sensory generalists. This is corroborated by previous studies on the sensory morphology of these species which showed that seatrout had more mechanosensory specialization, croaker had more visual specialization, and red drum were intermediate, with some enhancement of both systems. Behavioral data are interpreted in terms of habitat usage of the three species. Seatrout have the most restricted distribution over seagrass beds, croaker have a somewhat more flexible distribution, encompassing more open water habitats, and red drum have the most flexible range of habitats, using both vegetated and unvegetated portions of the estuary. These results indicate that even closely related species can exhibit different behaviors in order to better exploit the habitats in which they occur.