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Proc Biol Sci. 2008 Sep 22;275(1647):2165-70. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2008.0647.

Kin recognition in zebrafish: a 24-hour window for olfactory imprinting.

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Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, MA 02543, USA.


Distinguishing kin from non-kin profoundly impacts the evolution of social behaviour. Individuals able to assess the genetic relatedness of conspecifics can preferentially allocate resources towards related individuals and avoid inbreeding. We have addressed the question of how animals acquire the ability to recognize kin by studying the development of olfactory kin preference in zebrafish (Danio rerio). Previously, we showed that zebrafish use an olfactory template to recognize even unfamiliar kin through phenotype matching. Here, we show for the first time that this phenotype matching is based on a learned olfactory imprinting process in which exposure to kin individuals on day 6 post fertilization (pf) is necessary and sufficient for imprinting. Larvae that were exposed to kin before or after but not on day 6 pf did not recognize kin. Larvae isolated from all contact with conspecifics did not imprint on their own chemical cues; therefore, we see no evidence for kin recognition through self-matching in this species. Surprisingly, exposure to non-kin odour during the sensitive phase of development did not result in imprinting on the odour cues of unrelated individuals, suggesting a genetic predisposition to kin odour. Urine-born peptides expressed by genes of the immune system (MHC) are important messengers carrying information about 'self' and 'other'. We suggest that phenotype matching is acquired through a time-sensitive learning process that, in zebrafish, includes a genetic predisposition potentially involving MHC genes expressed in the olfactory receptor neurons.

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