Meet the Australian reef fish who can change colour to sneak up on its meals

A brown vs yellow dottyback fish. IMAGE: Justin Marshall

The reef fish dottyback can change the colour of its body to imitate a variety of other fish species so it can sneak up undetected and eat their young.

The dottyback also uses its colour-changing abilities to hide from larger predators by colour-matching to the background of its habitat and disappearing into the scenery.

The research, published in the journal Current Biology, reveals a sophisticated example of mimicry.

“By changing colour to imitate local damselfish communities, dottybacks are able to overcome the predator avoidance behaviour in the juvenile fish they hunt,” said Dr William Feeney from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

“The dottyback behaviour is comparable to the ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ scenario from Aesop’s Fables, where distinguishing the predator from the harmless ‘flock’ becomes increasingly difficult when they look alike.”

Dottybacks are generally solitary and highly territorial predators of around eight centimetres in length, commonly found in Indo-Pacific coral reefs.

While dottybacks can vary their colouration from pink to grey, the researchers focused on two colour morphs — yellow and brown — found on the reefs surrounding Lizard Island off Queensland.

“This is the first time that an animal has been found to be able to morph between different guises in order to deceive different species, making the dottyback a pretty crafty little fish,” Feeney said.

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