Date: 2022-01-06

Degree: Doctoral Thesis

Programme: Science

Authors: Andreia Maria Cerejo Ramos

Supervisors: Prof. David Gonçalves, University of Saint Joseph



Aggression clearly has an adaptive value as it is necessary to secure resources for survival, growth, and reproduction. The Siamese fighting fish, Betta splendens, have endured a prolonged process of artificial selection for winning paired-fight contests across Southeast Asia, resulting in strains of short-fin aggressive “fighters”. Across centuries, Thai breeders have been selecting these strains by discarding loser batches and allowing winner batches to breed, claiming that they are significantly more aggressive than wild-types. This natural experiment provides a powerful context to investigate the biological basis of aggressive behaviour in fish, the topic of this thesis.

To study aggression, it is important to validate and standardize behavioural assays appropriate for the species under study. Further, different aggression-eliciting stimuli, such as live opponents, 3D models, video playback, or mirror images, may elicit non- equivalent behavioural and physiological responses. For B. splendens, in particular, quantifying aggression from live fights is not ethically acceptable as the high levels of aggression of this species usually result in injuries or even death of the opponent. In Chapter II, it was shown that mirror images elicit very similar aggressive displays and endocrine responses to an interacting opponent behind a transparent partition, validating the use of this test to measure aggression in this model species. Further, it was shown that circulating levels of both androgens (11-ketotestosterone and testosterone) and corticosteroids (cortisol) increased in response to the aggression challenge, even in the absence of conflict resolution, questioning the role of these hormones during present and future aggressive contests.

Using the previously validated mirror assay and also tests with live conspecifics, we assessed the impact of selection for winning by comparing, in Chapter III, male and female aggressive behaviour of lab-raised fighter and wild-type strains. The hypothesis that selection for male winners enhanced aggressive displays was confirmed, suggesting that the duration and frequency of threat and attack behaviour correlates with winning probability. However, females of the fighter strain, which are not selected for fights, were also more aggressive than wild-type females. This suggests that male and female aggression share common genetic pathways and physiological mechanisms and raises the possibility that selection for alleles that favour male aggression may have promoted intersexual genetic conflict in this species.

After confirming the expected differences in aggressive behaviour between fighter and wild-type fish, the following question was on whether endocrine systems, in particular those previously shown to respond to aggression, could have been targeted by the selection process. From previous studies in fish and other vertebrates, it was hypothesised that selection for winners could have increased constitutive levels of androgens or led to an enhanced androgen response to a social challenge. However, in chapter IV, it was shown that levels of 11-ketotestosterone and its response to aggression was similar in males of both strains, questioning the role of androgens in the modulation of aggression in B. splendens. On the contrary, constitutive levels of cortisol and the response of this hormone to an aggression challenge were higher in wild-type as compared with fighter fish, supporting previous findings that associated high aggression with a blunted cortisol response. Overall, results from Chapter IV suggest that selection for winning had a stronger impact in the hypothalamus-pituitary-interrenal axis than in the hypothalamus-pituitary-gonadal axis.

My results support of the “Challenge Hypothesis” proposed by John Wingfield and collaborators in 1990 to explain the relationship between androgens and aggression, according to which androgen levels above a reproductive baseline are a consequence of the frequency and intensity of social interactions, in particular of male-male agonistic encounters. It is becoming clear that androgens increase rapidly after an aggressive contest, independently of fight outcome. However, the function of this increase remains unclear as the frequency of aggressive displays was unrelated with post-fight androgen levels and constitutive levels of androgens, and androgen responsiveness, were similar between fighter and wild-type males. Results obtained for cortisol agree with a “corticosteroid-mediated dominance hypothesis” whereby low baseline levels and a blunted response of corticosteroids would be associated with a dominant status and high aggression.

The work advances our knowledge about the endocrine regulation of aggressive behaviour in B. splendens and opens several testable hypotheses about the role of androgens and corticosteroids in the regulation of fish aggressive behaviour.