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Indirect cue of paternity uncertainty does not affect nest site selection or parental care in a Pacific toadfish


Parents are expected to reduce offspring investment when confronted with reliable cues of compromised parentage, yet establishing which cues are reliable is an empirical challenge. Presenting a potential cuckolder to a breeding male is often used in experiments as an indirect cue of paternity loss. However, determining the reliability and hence the utility of this cue is an important but often-overlooked research step. Furthermore, cues of compromised parentage are typically manipulated only during the narrow time window(s) when copulations take place, and so we currently have a poor understanding of whether these cues also convey useful information at other critical timepoints in the reproductive cycle, such as during nest site selection. Here, we present a series of field and laboratory studies using a paternal care giving toadfish, the plainfin midshipman fish (Porichthys notatus) to address these questions. We tested whether the presence of a potential cuckolder near a potential nesting site reduces the odds that males will choose to nest at that site, or reduces the amount of care they provide for offspring. Overall, we found no clear effect of cuckolder presence on the likelihood that a male would occupy nor abandon a nesting site, nor on the amount of paternal care provided. The presentation of a single sneaker male may have been too weak a signal of cuckoldry to elicit a response from guarder males. Alternatively, a single sneaker male may not represent a severe enough threat to paternity to warrant a response. We highlight the importance of considering the diverse range of natural history and ecological factors that underlie paternity cue utility across different model organisms.

Significance statement

Breeding decisions, such as which nesting sites to occupy or how much to invest into offspring, may be affected by external cues of parentage loss (e.g. cuckoldry) or risk thereof. Here, we tested whether the presence of a cuckolder male in the breeding environment affects male nest site selection and paternal care. Despite being a commonly used putative indirect cue of sperm competition and paternity loss, we found no clear evidence that the presence of a single sneaker male affected these breeding decisions. Our results underscore the importance of first establishing the utility of various cues, which involves considering the ecological context from which the cues arise, before using them to assess the mechanisms underlying animal decision-making.

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We thank Pamela Walker, Ross Shepard, Captain Bill, Rubie Cogswell, and the Stz’uminus First Nation for their hospitality and for providing access to field sites. We also thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on this paper.

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Analyses reported in this article can be reproduced using the data provided in the supplementary materials.


This work was funded by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada grant to SB. Additional funding was provided to AB and JM by the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour at McMaster University and to AB by the McMaster University Graduate Students’ Association, as well as the PADI Foundation.

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Correspondence to Aneesh P. H. Bose.

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The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Ethical approval

The plainfin midshipman is a common intertidal species and is not considered threatened or endangered (Collette et al. 2010). This work was done in accordance with Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientific collections permits (XR 812015, XR 582017). The procedures used in this study were approved by the McMaster University Animal Research Ethics Board (AUP 13-12-52) and the University of Victoria Animal Care Committee (AUP 2017-003(1)), and are in line with the guidelines set by the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC) and ASAB/ABS (2018) regarding the treatment of animals in research and teaching. Furthermore, these fish were also used in a number of additional experiments (e.g. Bose et al. 2018; Miller et al. 2019a, b).

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Bose, A.P.H., Houpt, N., Rawlins, M. et al. Indirect cue of paternity uncertainty does not affect nest site selection or parental care in a Pacific toadfish. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 74, 24 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-020-2803-8

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  • Parental investment
  • Nest choice
  • Intertidal zone
  • Cuckoldry
  • Midshipman fish