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J Exp Biol. 2013 Feb 1;216(Pt 3):388-98. doi: 10.1242/jeb.072751.

Zebrafish larvae evade predators by sensing water flow.

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Department of Ecology and Evolution, 321 Steinhaus Hall, University of California, Irvine, CA 92697-2525, USA.


The ability of fish to evade predators is central to the ecology and evolution of a diversity of species. However, it is largely unclear how prey fish detect predators in order to initiate their escape. We tested whether larval zebrafish (Danio rerio) sense the flow created by adult predators of the same species. When placed together in a cylindrical arena, we found that larvae were able to escape 70% of predator strikes (mean escape probability P(escape)=0.7, N=13). However, when we pharmacologically ablated the flow-sensitive lateral line system, larvae were rarely capable of escape (mean P(escape)=0.05, N=11). In order to explore the rapid events that facilitate a successful escape, we recorded freely swimming predators and prey using a custom-built camera dolly. This device permitted two-dimensional camera motion to manually track prey and record their escape response with high temporal and spatial resolution. These recordings demonstrated that prey were more than 3 times more likely to evade a suction-feeding predator if they responded before (P(escape)=0.53, N=43), rather than after (P(escape)=0.15, N=13), a predator's mouth opened, which is a highly significant difference. Therefore, flow sensing plays an essential role in predator evasion by facilitating a response prior to a predator's strike.

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