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Beware of black eyed guppies – fish change iris colour as warning to rivals

Scientists said making guppies make their eyes more conspicuous as a signal of aggression.

Tiny guppy fish change their eye colour to warn off rivals, new research shows.

When facing an opponent, Trinidadian guppies rapidly turn their irises from silver to black before attacking their adversary.

This makes their eyes more conspicuous and is an “honest” signal of aggression – larger guppies do it to smaller ones they can beat in a fight, but smaller ones do not return the gesture.

As part of the study, the researchers made visually realistic robotic guppies to see what would happen if smaller fish displayed their aggressive motivation – and larger fish flocked in to compete with the small imposters for food.

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Scientists found guppies change their iris colour to communicate their aggressive motivation to others (Robert Heathcote/University of Exeter/PA)

Lead author Dr Robert Heathcote, from the University of Exeter, said: “Trinidadian guppies can change their iris colour within a few seconds, and our research shows they do this to honestly communicate their aggressive motivation to other guppies.

“Experimentally showing that animals use their eye colouration to communicate with each other can be very difficult, so we made realistic-looking robotic fish with differing eye colours and observed the reaction of real fish.”

Professor Darren Croft, also from the University of Exeter, said: “Eyes are one of the most easily recognised structures in the natural world and many species go to great lengths to conceal and camouflage their eyes to avoid unwanted attention from predators or rivals.

“However, some species have noticeable or prominent eyes and, for the most part, it has remained a mystery as to why this would be.

“This research gives a new insight into the reasons behind why some animals have such ‘conspicuous’ eyes.”

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A guppy changes its iris to black to warn rivals away from food (Robert Heathcote/University of Exeter/PA)

To carry out the research, scientists at the universities of Exeter and West Indies developed the robotic guppies to help determine what would happen if smaller guppies tried to “cheat” by displaying aggression towards larger rivals.

They found that food patches defended by black-eyed robots attracted disproportionate competition from larger real guppies and in particular those which displayed blacker-coloured eyes.

The research team believe that this behaviour explains why the guppies are “honest” and only display how angry they are if they can dominate a rival.

Dr Jolyon Troscianko, also from University of Exeter and who helped invent the guppy robots, said: “Scientists used to spend hours laboriously painting model fish, eggs and other objects to see how their appearance affected how other animals interacted with the models.

“Here, we used carefully calibrated photography and printing techniques to create robotic models, and guppies responded to them as though they were real fish.”

The study, Dynamic Eye Colour As An Honest Signal Of Aggression, is published in the journal Current Biology.

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