Colour Changing Dottyback Is ‘Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing’

Dusky/Yellow DottybackPublished today in the journal Current Biology, a new study has shown that the Dusky Dottyback Pseudochromis fuscus can change colour  to imitate other reef fish species both allowing it to prey on their young, and to hide from predators by blending in to its habitat. The research reveals a surprising and sophisticated new example of ‘mimicry’.

While using mimicry to hunt or hide from other species is common in nature, scientists note that if the deception is encountered too frequently, prey species become vigilant to the threat and develop tactics to counter the mimics. The dottyback, however, is able to colour-morph depending on the particular colour of the surrounding species it is currently hunting (often damselfishes). Scientists say that this flexibility of physical mimicry makes it much harder for the dottyback’s prey to develop detection strategies and avoid getting eaten.

“By changing colour to imitate local damselfish communities, dottybacks are able to overcome the predator avoidance behaviour in the juvenile fish they hunt,” said Dr William Feeney, co-author of the study from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

“The dottyback behaviour is comparable to the ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ scenario from Aesop’s Fables, where distinguishing the predator from the harmless ‘flock’ becomes increasingly difficult when they look alike — allowing the dottyback to creep up on unsuspecting juvenile damselfish,” Feeney said.

Read the paper and view a video abstract HERE

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