Fish, like people, must pay for their accommodation

Feb 13, 2020

TENANTS WHO don’t pay the rent are a bane of landlords everywhere. And landlords who use heavy tactics to enforce payment are similarly a bane of tenants. Nor are these problems confined to human beings. Property-owning cichlid fish seem as ruthless about receiving what they are owed as any 19th-century tenement holder in the Lower East Side of New York.

The fish in question, Neolamprologus pulcher, inhabit Lake Tanganyika in east Africa. They are co-operative breeders, meaning that dominant individuals do the breeding and subordinates assist in various ways, in exchange for immediate survival-enhancing benefits that may lead to the ultimate prize of becoming dominant themselves. In the case of N. pulcher the main benefit is having somewhere to live. Dwellings, in the form of shelters dug out from sand under rocks, are controlled by dominant pairs. These dominants permit subordinates to share their accommodation, and those subordinates pay for the privilege by keeping the property in good repair and defending the dominants’ eggs and fry against predators.

Though co-operative breeding by vertebrates has evolved several times (famous examples include the meerkat mongooses of southern Africa and the scrub jays of Florida), the question of how rental payments are enforced has...

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