Animated images as a tool to study visual communication: a case study in a cooperatively breeding cichlid

in Behaviour
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Investigating the role of visual information in animal communication often involves the experimental presentation of live stimuli, mirrors, dummies, still images, video recordings or computer animations. In recent years computer animations have received increased attention, as this technology allows the presentation of moving stimuli that exhibit a fully standardized behaviour. However, whether simple animated 2D-still images of conspecific and heterospecific stimulus animals can elicit detailed behavioural responses in test animals is unclear thus far. In this study we validate a simple method to generate animated still images using PowerPoint presentations as an experimental tool. We studied context-specific behaviour directed towards conspecifics and heterospecifics, using the cooperatively breeding cichlid Neolamprologus pulcher as model species. N. pulcher did not only differentiate between images of conspecifics, predators and herbivorous fish, but they also showed adequate behavioural responses towards the respective stimulus images as well as towards stimulus individuals of different sizes. Our results indicate that even simple animated still images, which can be produced with minimal technical effort at very low costs, can be used to study detailed behavioural responses towards social and predatory challenges. Thus, this technique opens up intriguing possibilities to manipulate single or multiple visual features of the presented animals by simple digital image-editing and to study their relative importance to the observing fish. We hope to encourage further studies to use animated images as a powerful research tool in behavioural and evolutionary studies.

Animated images as a tool to study visual communication: a case study in a cooperatively breeding cichlid

in Behaviour



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    Comparison of (a) attention, (b) aggressive behaviour and (c) presence in the different zones between the four treatments in Experiment 1. w.s., white screen; ob., object image; con., moving conspecific image (= N. pulcher); pred., moving predator image (= L. elongatus). Boxplots of medians, quartiles and whiskers (1.5× interquartile range) are shown in (a) and (b); means ± SE are shown in (c).

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    Comparison between (a) attention, (b) aggressive behaviour and (c) presence in the different zones, shown in the presence of large and small sized stimulus fish in Experiment 2. Circles and white bars represent the display of a conspecific image (= N. pulcher); triangles and grey bars represent the display of a predator image (= L. elongatus). Medians and interquartile ranges are shown in (a) and (b); means ± SE are shown in (c).

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    Comparison between (a) attention, (b) aggressive behaviour and (c) presence in the zone closest to the screen, when presented with large, medium and small sized stimulus fish in Experiment 3. Circles and white bars represent the display of herbivore images (= O. ventralis) and triangles and grey bars represent the display predator images (= L. elongatus). Medians and interquartile ranges are shown in (a) and (b); means ± SE are presented in (c).

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    Observer view of the experimental set-up in Experiments 1 and 2. The test aquarium was divided in 8 equally sized zones with the shelter in zones 4–5 and the opening facing towards the screen. The screen was randomly placed left or right next to the experimental tank.

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    Observer view of the experimental set-up in Experiment 3. The test aquarium was divided into 3 equally sized zones with zone 1 close to the screen and the shelter in zone 3, with the opening towards the observer. In this experiment we used a greenish background. Stones shown onto the background near the bottom served as size references.

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    Comparison between the aggression towards a similar sized predator presented on a white background and a predator presented on a greenish background. We used the aggression towards the predator in Experiment 1 and the aggression towards the small sized predator in Experiment 3. As we used different observation times in both experiments we calculated per minute aggression and compared it using a Mann–Whitney U-test in R 2.14.1. Test fish directed comparable amounts of aggression towards a predator presented on a white background and a predator presented on a greenish background (Mann–Whitney U-test, W = 415, p=0.25). Figure A3 shows per minute aggression towards the predator presented on a greenish background and the predator presented on a white background. Medians, quartiles and whiskers (1.5× interquartile ranges) are shown.

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    Screenshots of PowerPoint slides during (a) the presentation of an empty background and (b) the presentation of an animated rectangular, similar sized and coloured as N. pulcher in Experiment 1.

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    Screenshots of PowerPoint slides during (a) the presentation of an animated predator (L. elongatus) and (b) the presentation of an animated N. pulcher in Experiment 1. Both slides were used as well in Experiment 2 (= small size class).

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    Screenshots of PowerPoint slides during (a) the large predator and (b) the large herbivore display in Experiment 3.

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