Rare morph Lake Malawi mbuna cichlids benefit from reduced aggression from con- and hetero-specifics

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Electronic versions



Abstract Balancing selection is important for the maintenance of polymorphism as it can prevent either fixation of one morph through directional selection or genetic drift, or speciation by disruptive selection. Polychromatism, the presence of multiple genetically determined colour phenotypes, can be maintained if the fitness of alternative morphs depends on the relative frequency in a population. In aggressive species, negative frequency-dependent antagonism can prevent an increase in the frequency of rare morphs as they would only benefit from increased fitness while they are rare. Heterospecific aggression is common in nature and has the potential to contribute to rare morph advantage. Here we carry out field observations and laboratory aggression experiments with mbuna cichlids from Lake Malawi, to investigate the role of con- and heterospecific aggression in the maintenance of polychromatism and identify benefits to rare morphs which are likely to result from reduced aggression. We hypothesize that rare morph individuals receive less aggression than common morph individuals and therefore have an ecological advantage. Within species we found that males and females bias aggression towards their own morph, adding to the evidence that inherent own-morph aggression biases can contribute to balancing selection. Over-representation of rare morph territory owners may be influenced by two factors; higher tolerance of different morph individuals as neighbours, and the ability of rare morphs to spend more time feeding. Reduced aggression to rare morph individuals by heterospecifics may also contribute to rare morph advantage.


  • aggression, blotch polymorphism, cichlid, Malawi, rare morph advantage
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1678-1690
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Evolutionary Biology
Issue number11
Early online date16 Sept 2021
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2021

Total downloads

No data available
View graph of relations