Smell or vision? The use of different sensory modalities in predator discrimination.

Fischer, Stefan; Oberhummer, Evelyne; Cunha Saraiva, Filipa; Gerber, Nina; Taborsky, Barbara (2017). Smell or vision? The use of different sensory modalities in predator discrimination. Behavioral ecology and sociobiology, 71(10), p. 143. Springer-Verlag 10.1007/s00265-017-2371-8

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Theory predicts that animals should adjust their escape responses to the perceived predation risk. The information animals obtain about potential predation risk may differ qualitatively depending on the sensory modality by which a cue is perceived. For instance, olfactory cues may reveal better information about the presence or absence of threats, whereas visual information can reliably transmit the position and potential attack distance of a predator. While this suggests a differential use of information perceived through the two sensory channels, the relative importance of visual vs. olfactory cues when distinguishing between different predation threats is still poorly understood. Therefore, we exposed individuals of the cooperatively breeding cichlid Neolamprologus pulcher to a standardized threat stimulus combined with either predator or non-predator cues presented either visually or chemically. We predicted that flight responses towards a threat stimulus are more pronounced if cues of dangerous rather than harmless heterospecifics are presented and that N. pulcher, being an aquatic species, relies more on olfaction when discriminating between dangerous and harmless heterospecifics. N. pulcher responded faster to the threat stimulus, reached a refuge faster and entered a refuge more likely when predator cues were perceived. Unexpectedly, the sensory modality used to perceive the cues did not affect the escape response or the duration of the recovery phase. This suggests that N. pulcher are able to discriminate heterospecific cues with similar acuity when using vision or olfaction. We discuss that this ability may be advantageous in aquatic environments where the visibility conditions strongly vary over time.


The ability to rapidly discriminate between dangerous predators and harmless heterospecifics is crucial for the survival of prey animals. In seasonally fluctuating environment, sensory conditions may change over the year and may make the use of multiple sensory modalities for heterospecific discrimination highly beneficial. Here we compared the efficacy of visual and olfactory senses in the discrimination ability of the cooperatively breeding cichlid Neolamprologus pulcher. We presented individual fish with visual or olfactory cues of predators or harmless heterospecifics and recorded their flight response. When exposed to predator cues, individuals responded faster, reached a refuge faster and were more likely to enter the refuge. Unexpectedly, the olfactory and visual senses seemed to be equally efficient in this discrimination task, suggesting that seasonal variation of water conditions experienced by N. pulcher may necessitate the use of multiple sensory channels for the same task.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


08 Faculty of Science > Department of Biology > Institute of Ecology and Evolution (IEE)
08 Faculty of Science > Department of Biology > Institute of Ecology and Evolution (IEE) > Behavioural Ecology

UniBE Contributor:

Fischer, Stefan, Oberhummer, Evelyne, Cunha Saraiva, Filipa, Gerber, Nina, Taborsky, Barbara


500 Science > 570 Life sciences; biology
500 Science > 590 Animals (Zoology)
000 Computer science, knowledge & systems








Anja Ebeling

Date Deposited:

17 Jul 2023 16:45

Last Modified:

18 Jul 2023 11:42

Publisher DOI:


PubMed ID:


Uncontrolled Keywords:

Antipredator behaviour Cichlids Neolamprologus pulcher Olfaction Perception Threat-sensitive assessment of predation risk




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