Champneys, T., Castaldo, G., Consuegra, S., et al. 2018. Density dependent changes in neophobia and stress-coping styles in the world’s oldest farmed fish. Royal Society Open Science 5(12), 181473.
Farmed fish are typically reared at densities much higher than those observed in the wild, but to what extent crowding results in abnormal behaviours that can impact welfare and stress coping styles is subject to debate. Neophobia (i.e. fear of the ‘new’) is thought to be adaptive under natural conditions by limiting risks, but it is potentially maladapted in captivity, where there are no predators or novel foods. We reared juvenile Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) for six weeks at either high (50 g l−1) or low density (14 g l−1), assessed the extent of skin and eye darkening (two proxies of chronic stress), and exposed them to a novel object in an open test arena, with and without cover, to assess the effects of density on neophobia and stress coping styles. Fish reared at high density were darker, more neophobic, less aggressive, less mobile and less likely to take risks than those reared at low density, and these effects were exacerbated when no cover was available. Thus, the reactive coping style shown by fish at high density was very different from the proactive coping style shown by fish at low density. Our findings provide novel insights into the plasticity of fish behaviour and the effects of aquaculture intensification on one of the world's oldest farmed and most invasive fish, and highlight the importance of considering context. Crowding could have a positive effect on the welfare of tilapia by reducing aggressive behaviour, but it can also make fish chronically stressed and more fearful, which could make them less invasive.