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The life of a Guppy - a look at their aquatic antics

PUBLISHED: 01:44 23 June 2012 | UPDATED: 10:36 21 February 2013

The life of a Guppy - a look at their aquatic antics

The life of a Guppy - a look at their aquatic antics

In this article we take a look at the Guppy which as well as being popular with fish fanciers, has also been very useful for biologists. Find out why here...

We humans like to think that were pretty special. Lets be honest, we are.


Sure, eagles can see farther than us, and horses can run faster but somehow I struggle to imagine Kauto Star down at the Large Hadron Collider looking for the Higgs boson. With those hooves I doubt he could even turn it on. No, all modesty aside, our large brains give us some pretty special qualities. Most of the time though, and I dont mean to be disparaging here, the vast majority of us arent exactly setting the intellectual world on fire. Even if some big shot scientist makes a momentous discovery on Monday, the chances are good that come Tuesday theyll have to put their laundry on and remember to get something in for dinner. But even our everyday lives can consume a great deal of brain power, not least because we are social creatures. Being sociable means that we have to interpret the actions of others and interrupting the intrigue, dishonesty and sexual politics of those around us can be a bit like eating a fried breakfast in a dark room standing on your head at best youre going to get egg on your face, and who knows where the sausage will end up

Lest we start to feel too smug as we bask in the warm glow of our complex lives though, recent work suggests that even some fish manage to fit an admirable amount of sexual politics in between an otherwise full life of scoffing fish food and making that weird stringy poo. The fish in question is the guppy, which as well as being popular with fish
fanciers, has also been very useful for biologists. Males and females are very different in colour and behaviour and the females produce a large number of live young rather than laying eggs.

For the laboratory scientist they can be studied in tanks in the reassuring warmth and safety of the lab but they can also be studied in the wild. Since they have the good sense to live in Trinidad, where the sun shines and rum is cheap, field work on these fish is an ever-popular choice. Im an insect biologist and so to be honest I tend to lump guppies into my
mental classification scheme as fish: small, freshwater, in much the same way that those tricky to identify small brown birds become little brown jobs or LBJs to a non-ornithologist. However, guppies, especially females, have a pretty interesting social life that warrants some attention.

It seems that male guppies are, and theres no other way to put this, sexual bullies. They cant get enough of female guppies and they harass them constantly for chances to mate. All this attention gets pretty tiresome for females. In fact, the constant harassment can stop them from finding food or escaping from predators, which is generally bad news
down at the fish tank. So ladies, its a bit like that annoying guy at the office who always finds a way to sidle up to you at the photocopier and make lewd comments, except that in this case he also steals your lunch and pushes you out of the window for good measure. It can get so bad that females resort to extreme tactics to get the amorous males off their backs, which isnt actually the way fishes go about their reproductive business but you get the idea. If theres no other way out, the drab coloured female guppies will move to the places where predators hang out. The brightly coloured and highly visible males are more prone to being eaten by predators than the females and it seems that imminent death is just (and only just) enough of a deterrent for anamorous fish. Female guppies have other tricks up their scaly sleeves.

As well as hanging out with predators, they can also make use of sexier females as sleaze bait. When female guppies actually want to mate theyrelease a chemical that makes males even more determined and a recent study found that females can avoid unwanted harassment by pairing up with these sexually receptive females, who then get all the male attention. To use a human analogy it would be rather like a not so attractive woman going around with a more attractive well, you get the idea. So, the next time you pass a fish tank it might be worth taking a closer look. Just make sure that you brace yourself for some pretty racy antics!

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