Guppies Dodge Predators Like Spanish Bull-Fighters | The Institute for Creation Research

Guppies Dodge Predators Like Spanish Bull-Fighters
Have Trinidadian guppies learned evasive maneuvers from Spanish bullfighters? Recent research published in the journal Current Biology1 reports how gutsy guppies confront a regular predator, the voracious pike cichlids, like a matador. They attract the attacker to a location that can be dodged from. Then, at the last instant, the guppy pivots to safety.1-3

Trinidadian guppies behave like matadors, focusing a predator's point of attack before dodging away at the last moment, new research shows.2

The toreador trick depends upon the guppy flashing its eyes at the attacker. Specifically, the threatened guppy attracts conspicuous attention by turning its irises black, so the predator aims at the guppy’s head. After the predator lunges at a committed angle of attack, the guppy dodges.

The tiny fish (10-40mm) draw attention by turning their irises black, which makes their eyes very conspicuous. This encourages pike cichlids—a large fish that is the guppies' main predator—to charge at their head rather than their body. … [but the] guppies then use their lightning reflexes to whip their head out of the way, causing the predators to miss, before swimming away.2

Dr. Robert Heathcote, the lead researcher, explained the observations.

"The guppies actually use their eyes to get the predator's attention, causing them to lunge at a guppy's head rather than its body. Whilst it seems completely counterintuitive to make a predator attack your head, this strategy works incredibly well because guppies wait until the predator commits to its attack before pivoting out of the way.”2

Like the timing and agility of a matador, the evasion is only successful if quickly performed at the right instant.

"We noticed that guppies would approach a cichlid at an angle, quickly darkening their eyes to jet-black, and then waiting to see if it would attack," said lead author Dr Robert Heathcote, who undertook the experimental work at Exeter and is now [Research Associate] at the University of Bristol.

"Cichlids are ambush predators, lying in wait like a coiled spring before launching themselves at their prey. The speed of the whole interaction is extraordinary—at around three hundredths of a second—so was only observable using a high-speed camera."2

This is a classic case of animal signaling, intentionally providing information in order to elicit a specific response from someone else. The Trinidadian guppy presents “a communicative signal—a consciously prepared message sent from one intelligent creature to another for the purpose of prompting a behavioral response that will benefit the ‘speaking’ animal.”4

But how are the researchers confident that the guppies are actually using a toreador trick to “signal” to their attacking predators? The study was conducted in several stages:

• Guppies were observed approaching pike cichlids, often turning their irises black.
• The attack strategy of cichlids was tested by placing them in tanks with realistic robotic guppies. When robotic guppies had black eyes, cichlids tended to strike towards the head rather than towards the centre of the body.
• By placing guppies and cichlids in a tank (with a transparent screen to prevent the guppies being eaten) and filming with high-speed cameras, researchers observed the success rates of cichlid attacks. Guppies that turned their eyes black were 38% more successful at escaping than guppies with normal eye colouration.
• Findings were then confirmed using footage of a previous study in which cichlids were filmed hunting real guppies.2

Yet this behavior—by which guppies communicate intentionally with pike cichlids—is not a signaling behavior that is well-known among behavioral biologists.

Once detected and identified by their predators, prey must avoid being captured and killed. … [To do this] many species exploit conspicuous color patterns and other types of ornamentation to deceive or escape from their predators. These can benefit prey by signaling their toxicity … [or] startling predators … or diverting attacks to expendable body parts.1

However, unlike other forms of signaling, the Trinidadian guppy’s communicative confrontation is like a matador’s invitation, daring the assaulting bull to aim at a specific location for its charge.

Using Trinidadian guppies (Poecilia reticulata), we demonstrate a new type of divertive anti-predator strategy that, in contrast to deflection, requires a critically timed evasive maneuver … [accomplished when] prey use conspicuous coloration to direct attacks to a predictable location on their body and, once the predator has committed to its attack, the prey uses a ‘matador-like’ strategy whereby they execute a split-second escape response that takes them safely out of the predator’s diverted attack path.1

Of course, trying to acquire that behavioral trait by “trial-and-error” evolutionary accidents is not a feasible way to survive predator attacks! One wrong move and there’s no more growth to the prey’s family tree! Yet these fish survive generation after generation, and have successfully done so since Day 5 of Creation Week.5

Truly, God has installed a form of wisdom in creatures as humble as fish.6,7

Many can argue about how much of this guppy wisdom is intuitive (when God designed the fish hardware and software)—versus how much of this guppy wisdom is somehow learned by fish using the continuous environmental tracking systems that God has equipped them with.4,6-8

But we do know that this unique fish is wonderfully designed to survive and thrive.9

Stage image: A female guppy with black irises.
Stage image credit: Jolyon Troscianko. Copyright © 2020. Adapted for use in accordance with federal copyright (fair use doctrine) law. Usage by ICR does not imply endorsement of copyright holders.

1. Heathcote, R. C. P., J. Troscianko, S. K. Darden, et al. 2020. A Matador-like Predator Diversion Strategy Driven by Conspicuous Coloration in Guppies. Current Biology. 30: 1-8.
2. Staff writer. 2020. ‘Matador’ Guppies Trick Predators. University of Exeter. Posted on June 11, 2020, accessed June 15, 2020.
3. The pike cichlids are a major menace to Trinidadian guppies. “Crenicichla frenata [pike cichlids] are resourceful feeders with a huge appetite. This species is a predator, it spends most of the day stalking prey. ... The pike cichlid is one of the biggest predators to the Trinidadian guppy [Poecilia reticulata]. Crenicichla frenata usually allows its prey to swim while it watches patiently lurking amongst and beneath objects before striking the chosen victim. The pike cichlid’s mouth, particularly the jaw and sharp teeth, are well adapted to … snatching and tearing of food.” Staff writer. 2020. Online Guide to the Animals of Trinidad and Tobago. St. Augustine Campus: Trinidad & Tobago, West Indies. Posted on, accessed June 15, 2020.
4. Johnson, J. J. S. 2019. God Crafted Creatures to Communicate. Acts & Facts. 48(11):21. See also Davies, N. B. et al. 2012. An Introduction to Behavioural Ecology, 4th ed. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 394-423. Pay attention to page 395 contrasting “cues” and “signals.” All signals are cues, but not all environmental cues are sent as intentional signals.
5. “Creationists maintain fish were created on Day 5 of creation week.” Sherwin, F. 2019. A Fossilized School of Fish. Creation Science Update. Posted on June 25, 2019, accessed June 15, 2020. See Genesis 1:20-23.
6. Humble frillfin goby fish also demonstrate amazing problem-solving abilities, as do tool-using dolphins, tuskfish, and other resourceful sea animals. See Tomkins, J. P. 2016. Fish as Smart as Apes? Acts & Facts. 45(12):15. “Clearly these complex cognitive fish abilities don’t fit the evolutionary paradigm…[but] they exemplify the incredible engineering and creativity of our great Creator God.”
7. Johnson, J. J. S. 2017. Clever Creatures: ‘Wise from Receiving Wisdom’. Acts & Facts. 46(3): 21.
8. Guliuzza, R. J. and P. B. Gaskill. 2018. Continuous Environmental Tracking: An Engineering Framework to Understand Adaptation and Diversification. In Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Creationism. J. H. Whitmore, ed. Pittsburgh, PA: Creation Science Fellowship, 158-184. See also, summary in Guliuzza, R. J. 2019. Engineered Adaptability: Continuous Environmental Tracking Wrap-Up. Acts & Facts. 48(8): 17-19.
9. God’s huge variety of fish, as well as other aquatic life-forms, continue to reveal what God was thinking when He created on Day 5. Creatures which dwell in saltwater, freshwater, brackish water, all of their lives—or (like some insects and amphibians) only during certain stages of life, glorify God just by being what God made them to be. See Psalm 104:24-31, especially 104:25. To appreciate Earth’s gigantic oceans and their diverse and exotic life-forms, review Frank Sherwin’s “The Mighty Oceans” podcast. Posted on June 22, 2016, accessed June 15, 2020.

*Dr. Johnson is Associate Professor of Apologetics and Chief Academic Officer at the Institute for Creation Research.
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