Environmental Biology of Fishes

, Volume 101, Issue 9, pp 1417–1425 | Cite as

A laboratory study of host use by the cuckoo catfish Synodontis multipunctatus

  • Marcus S. Cohen
  • M. Brent Hawkins
  • Janelle Knox-Hayes
  • Anna C. Vinton
  • Alexander Cruz


The only known non-avian vertebrate obligate brood parasite is the cuckoo catfish (Synodontis multipunctatus), a Lake Tanganyikan endemic. The cuckoo catfish parasitizes Tanganyikan mouthbrooding cichlids, and under captive conditions, will also parasitize cichlids from other Rift Valley lakes. Here we examine the frequency of parasitism by the cuckoo catfish of Ctenochromis horei from Lake Tanganyika and three species from Lake Malawi and the greater Lake Victorian system in a laboratory setting. C. horei was parasitized significantly less (17%) than the allopatric species Haplochromis latifasciatus, Haplochromis nubilus, and Metriaclima estherae (combined parasitism rate of 28%). The lower rates of parasitism in C. horei may be due to differences in the mating ritual, oviposition (e.g., long periods of pseudo-spawning before actual oviposition), and behavioral adaptations (e.g., increased aggression towards the cuckoo catfish). The number of catfish eggs per parasitized brood was similar between C. horei, H. latifasciatus, H. nubilus, and M. estherae. Our results are comparable to findings from the field for C. horei parasitism frequency and number of cuckoo catfish per brood. We also analyzed the parasitism rate of the albino morph of Metriaclima zebra, a domestic strain. Parasitism rates and number of catfish per brood were the highest in the albino morphotype suggesting that the higher levels of parasitism may be related to lower aggressive behavior, lower visual acuity, or captive influence. Cuckoo catfish and mouthbrooding cichlids provide a model system for testing brood parasitism in a laboratory setting.


Brood parasitism Cuckoo Catfish Synodontis Tanganyika 



We are grateful to our many research assistants for all of their hard work and to everyone dedicated to helping maintain the fish populations over the years. We would also like to recognize the significant contributions made by Cliff Bueno de Mesquita in performing our statistical analyses and helping revise our manuscript. Lastly we would like to thank the University of Colorado for the numerous funding opportunities available to support undergraduate research.

Compliance with ethical standards

Ethical approval

All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. All procedures performed in studies involving animals were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institution or practice at which the studies were conducted.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA
  2. 2.Department of Organismic and Evolutionary BiologyHarvard UniversityCambridgeUSA
  3. 3.School of Architecture and PlanningMassachusetts Institute of TechnologyCambridgeUSA
  4. 4.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyYale UniversityNew HavenUSA

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