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Shoaling behaviour in response to turbidity in three-spined sticklebacks

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Many fresh and coastal waters are becoming increasingly turbid because of human activities, which may disrupt the visually mediated behaviours of aquatic organisms. Shoaling fish typically depend on vision to maintain collective behaviour, which has a range of benefits including protection from predators, enhanced foraging efficiency and access to mates. Previous studies of the effects of turbidity on shoaling behaviour have focussed on changes to nearest neighbour distance and average group-level behaviours. Here, we investigated whether and how experimental shoals of three-spined sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus) in clear (<10 Nephelometric Turbidity Units [NTU]) and turbid (~35 NTU) conditions differed in five local-level behaviours of individuals (nearest and furthest neighbour distance, heading difference with nearest neighbour, bearing angle to nearest neighbour and swimming speed). These variables are important for the emergent group-level properties of shoaling behaviour. We found an indirect effect of turbidity on nearest neighbour distances driven by a reduction in swimming speed, and a direct effect of turbidity which increased variability in furthest neighbour distances. In contrast, the alignment and relative position of individuals was not significantly altered in turbid compared to clear conditions. Overall, our results suggest that the shoals were usually robust to adverse effects of turbidity on collective behaviour, but group cohesion was occasionally lost during periods of instability.



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Ecology and Evolution

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