Experimental manipulation of perceived predation risk and cortisol generates contrasting trait trajectories in plastic crucian carp [RESEARCH ARTICLE]

Jerker Vinterstare, Kaj Hulthen, P. Anders Nilsson, Helen Nilsson Sköld, and Christer Brönmark

Most animals constitute potential prey and must respond appropriately to predator-mediated stress in order to survive. Numerous prey also adaptively tailor their response to the prevailing level of risk and stress imposed by their natural enemies, i.e. they adopt an inducible defence strategy. Predator exposure may activate the stress axis, and drive the expression of anti-predator traits that facilitate survival in a high-risk environment (the predation–stress hypothesis). Here, we quantified two key morphological anti-predator traits, body morphology and coloration, in crucian carp reared in the presence or absence of a predator (pike) in addition to experimental manipulation of physiological stress via implants containing either cortisol or a cortisol inhibitor. We found that predator-exposed fish expressed a deeper-bodied phenotype and darker body coloration as compared with non-exposed individuals. Skin analyses revealed that an increase in the amount of melanophores caused the dramatic colour change in predator-exposed fish. Increased melanization is costly, and the darker body coloration may act as an inducible defence against predation, via a conspicuous signal of the morphological defence or by crypsis towards dark environments and a nocturnal lifestyle. By contrast, the phenotype of individuals carrying cortisol implants did not mirror the phenotype of predator-exposed fish but instead exhibited opposite trajectories of trait change: a shallow-bodied morphology with a lighter body coloration as compared with sham-treated fish. The cortisol inhibitor did not influence the phenotype of fish i.e. neither body depth nor body coloration differed between this group and predator-exposed fish with a sham implant. However, our results illuminate a potential link between stress physiology and morphological defence expression.

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