Cichlid neuroethology

Teleost fish represent by far the most successful vertebrate lineage in terms of species number and degree of adaptations to diverse ecosystems. The family of Cichlidae is of particular interest, because in contrast to the majority of teleosts, they show extensive brood care comparable to that of social mammals, birds and insects. African cichlids are ideal for studying the evolution and neuronal underpinnings of diverse brood care strategies. Many cichlid species can be bred and hybridized in the laboratory and are amenable to genetic manipulations.

In cichlids from the great East African lakes, brood care is associated with other complex behaviors, such as pair bonding, nest building, protection of fry and territoriality. It is unknown how these advanced cognitive capacities are implemented at the neural circuit level and how behavioral diversity is generated from very similar genomes. Either new neuronal cell types have evolved to handle the complex social interactions, or a shared, ancestral circuitry is differentiated by small genetic changes.

To explore how different cichlids produce diverse behaviors, we use a multi-pronged approach, including single-cell transcriptomics, video-based tracking, genome engineering and optogenetics. We expect that the combination of these technologies will ultimately allow us to understand the genetic basis of a complex behavior.

Cichlid brood care behavior

African cichlids express complex behaviors associated with brood care. We are using neurobiological and genetic methods to understand the genetic basis of these behaviors.

Behind the scenes

Social behavior of Cichlids

The shell-dwelling Cichlid fish are particularly interesting because they show complex social behavior such as extensive parental care. Our scientists have developed a unique method to study parental care by 3D printing shells through which they can see and film. This enables them to investigate how the fish build nests, care for their young as well as the mechanisms that cause the larvae to leave the shell as they get older. Together, the researchers hope to understand the complex behavior and evolution of Cichlids and to gain new insights into the convergent evolution of parental care and phenotypes. 
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