Social Status-Related Differences in Motor Activity Between Wild-Type and Mutant Zebrafish

Katie N Clements, Thomas H Miller, Jared M Keever, Amanda M Hall, Fadi A Issa
Biological Bulletin 2018, 235 (2): 71-82
Use of zebrafish as a model organism in biomedical research has led to the generation of many genetically modified mutant lines to investigate various aspects of developmental and cellular processes. However, the broader effects of the underlying mutations on social and motor behavior remain poorly examined. Here, we compared the dynamics of social interactions in the Tüpfel long-fin nacre mutant line, which lacks skin pigmentation, to wild-type zebrafish; and we determined whether status-dependent differences in escape and swimming behavior existed within each strain. We show that despite similarities in aggressive activity, Tüpfel long-fin nacre pairs exhibit unstable social relationships characterized by frequent reversals in social dominance compared to wild-type pairs. The lack of strong dominance relationships in Tüpfel long-fin nacre pairs correlates with weak territoriality and overlapping spatial distribution of dominants and subordinates. Conversely, wild-type dominants displayed strong territoriality that severely limited the movement of subordinates. Additionally, the sensitivity of the startle escape response was significantly higher in wild-type subordinates compared to dominants. However, status-related differences in sensitivity of escape response in Tüpfel long-fin nacre pairs were absent. Finally, we present evidence suggesting that these differences could be a consequence of a disruption of proper visual social signals. We show that in wild-type pairs dominants are more conspicuous, and that in wild-type and Tüpfel long-fin nacre pairings wild-type fish are more likely to dominate Tüpfel long-fin nacres. Our results serve as a cautionary note in research design when morphologically engineered zebrafish for color differences are utilized in the study of social behavior and central nervous system function.

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