Almeida, M. M., Cabrita, E., Fatsini, E. 2023. The use of sand substrate modulates dominance behaviour and brain gene expression in a flatfish species. Animals 13(6), 978.
Physical complexity adds physical enrichment to rearing conditions. This enrichment promotes fish welfare and reduces detrimental characteristics that fish develop in captivity. Senegalese sole (Solea senegalensis) is an important species for European aquaculture, where it is reared in intensive conditions using fibreglass tanks. However, reproductive dysfunctions present in this species do not allow it to complete its life cycle in captivity. Recently, dominance behaviour has been studied to try to solve this problem. The present study aimed to assess the effect of sand as environmental enrichment in the dominance behaviour and brain mRNA abundance of Senegalese sole juveniles. Four tanks of sole (n = 48 fish in total) were established in two different environments (with and without sand). Juveniles were subjected to dominance tests of feeding and territoriality. Behaviours analysed by video recordings related to the distance from the food delivered and harassment behaviour towards other individuals (e.g., resting of the head on another individual). In both environments, dominant sole were the first to feed, displayed more head-resting behaviour and dominated the area close to the feeding point, where the events were reduced in fish maintained in the sand. mRNA expression related to differentiation of dopamine neurons (nr4a2) and regulation of maturation (fshra) were significantly upregulated in dominant fish in the sand environment compared to dominants maintained without sand. The use of an enriched environment may affect Senegalese sole dominance, enhance welfare and possibly advance future maturation.