Dottybacks: Changing Colors to Hunt or Hide

Written by on March 27, 2015 in Fish, Marine Life
Indo-Pacific coral reef. Photo credit: Deb Gochfeld, NOAA-OE.

Indo-Pacific coral reef. Photo credit: Deb Gochfeld, NOAA-OE.

A new study reveals that a small predatory reef fish, the dottyback, can disguise itself as a harmless damselfish in order to sneak up on unsuspecting prey. Dottybacks (Pseudochromis fuscus) are solitary and highly territorial predators commonly found around Indo-Pacific coral reefs.

The dottyback can imitate several different reef fish species. It uses its color-changing abilities not only to sneak up on prey, but also to hide from potential predators by blending in with the surrounding habitat.

“This is the first time that an animal has been found to be able to morph between different guises in order to deceive different species, making the dottyback a pretty crafty little fish,” Dr William Feeney, co-author of the study from the University of Cambridge‘s Department of Zoology, explained in a news release.

Mimicry is not uncommon in the animal kingdom, but the dottyback is unique because it can change its color based on the particular color of the species it is currently hunting. Scientists say this flexibility makes it much harder for the fish’s prey to “develop detection strategies.”

Dottyback, Pseudochromis fuscus. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Dottyback, Pseudochromis fuscus. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

To determine the effect of the dottyfish’s camouflaging abilities, the researchers conducted controlled lab experiments with adult and juvenile damselfish. They found that after matching the color of the damselfish, dottybacks were up to three times more successful at capturing juvenile damselfish. They also witnessed the dottybacks using their color-morphing abilities to hide from predators, like coral trout.

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Copyright © 2015 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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