The ability to change coloration allows animals to modify their patterning to suit a specific function. Many freshwater fishes, for example, can appear cryptic by altering the dispersion of melanin pigment in the skin to match the visual background. However, melanin-based pigments are also used to signal dominance among competing males; thus colour change for background matching may conflict with colour change for social status signalling. We used a colour-changing freshwater fish to investigate whether colour change for background matching influenced aggressive interactions between rival males. Subordinate males that had recently darkened their skin for background matching received heightened aggression from dominant males, relative to males whose coloration had not changed. We then determined whether the social status of a rival male, the focal male's previous social status, and his previous skin coloration, affected a male's ability to change colour for background matching. Social status influenced skin darkening in the first social encounter, with dominant males darkening more than subordinate males, but there was no effect of social status on colour change in the second social encounter. We also found that the extent of skin colour change (by both dominant and subordinate males) was dependent on previous skin coloration, with dark males displaying a smaller change in coloration than pale males. Our findings suggest that skin darkening for background matching imposes a significant social cost on subordinate males in terms of increased aggression. We also suggest that the use of melanin-based signals during social encounters can impede subsequent changes in skin coloration for other functions, such as skin darkening for background matching.
Morrell, L. J., Kelley, J. L., & Rodgers, G. M. (2016). Conflict between background matching and social signalling in a colour-changing freshwater fish. Royal Society Open Science, 3(6), 160040. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.160040