Variation in social systems within Chaetodon butterflyfishes, with special reference to pair bonding

Jessica Nowicki, Lauren A. O’Connell, Peter F Cowman, Stefan P. W. Walker, Darren James Coker, Morgan S. Pratchett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


For many animals, affiliative relationships such as pair bonds form the foundation of society and are highly adaptive. Animal systems amenable for comparatively studying pair bonding are important for identifying underlying biological mechanisms, but mostly exist in mammals. Better establishing fish systems will enable comparison of pair bonding mechanisms across taxonomically distant lineages that may reveal general underlying mechanistic principles. We examined the utility of wild butterflyfishes (f: Chaetodontidae; g: Chaetodon) for comparatively studying pair bonding. Using stochastic character mapping, we provide the first analysis of the evolutionary history of butterflyfish sociality, revealing that pairing is ancestral, with at least seven independent transitions to gregarious grouping and solitary behavior since the late Miocene. We then formally verified social systems in six sympatric and widespread species representing a clade with one ancestrally reconstructed transition from paired to solitary grouping at Lizard Island, Australia. In situ observations of the size, selective affiliation and aggression, fidelity, and sex composition of social groups confirmed that Chaetodon baronessa, C. lunulatus, and C. vagabundus are predominantly pair bonding, whereas C. rainfordi, C. plebeius, and C. trifascialis are predominantly solitary. Even in the predominantly pair bonding species, C. lunulatus, a proportion of adults (15%) are solitary. Importantly, inter- and intra-specific differences in social systems do not co-vary with other previously established attributes, including parental care. Hence, the proposed butterflyfish populations are promising for inter- and intra-species comparative analyses of pair bonding and its mechanistic underpinnings. Avenues for further developing the system are proposed, including determining whether the aforementioned utility of these species applies across their geographic disruptions.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)e0194465
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 11 2018

Bibliographical note

KAUST Repository Item: Exported on 2020-10-01
Acknowledgements: This work was supported by an Australian Research Centre grant to SPWW and MSP, as well as a James Cook University Postgraduate Research Grant to JPN. The funding bodies had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. We thank the anonymous referees for their thoughtful and constructive comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript. Thank you Andrew Cole, Marian Wong, Kelly Boyle, and Tim Tricas for logistic advice on butterflyfish capture and sexing. Manuela Giammusso, Kyvely Vlahakis, and Siobhan Heatwole provided excellent field assistance. David Hallmark kindly donated tagging equipment for this study. We thank Lizard Island Research Station for field support. We acknowledge all of the fishes that were sacrificed in order to undertake this project.


Dive into the research topics of 'Variation in social systems within Chaetodon butterflyfishes, with special reference to pair bonding'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this