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GO FISH: Jessica Rack, a biology major from Daybook, W. Va., examines convict cichlid fish she is studying for a student-faculty research project.

SRU researchers fish for answers

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - There is something positively fishy going on at Slippery Rock University - a student-faculty research team in biology is making discoveries about the sophisticated behavior of cichlid fish.

For instance, the brightly colored fish, which are native to Central and South America, greet each other and form partnerships. They defend their young; respond to scents, and males show a preference for a particular body type in females, said Simon Beeching, professor of biology. "Parental care of any kind is extremely rare in fish," he said.

The findings stem from research involving Beeching and Jessica Rack, a biology major from Daybrook, W. Va., and Kimberly Wilson, a biology major from Macomb, Mich. They are raising and studying convict and firemouth cichlids kept in freshwater tanks.

Cichlids are one of the largest families of freshwater fish, with more than 2,000 species. Many are very colorful and common in home aquariums. Firemouth cichlids have red throats and bellies. Convict cichlids are marked by black stripes.

Beeching said the researchers are interested in the evolutionary reason why the species exhibits such usual behavior. Evolution assumes species change over time to adapt to a specialized environment, with adaptations increasing the success of the species. SRU's researchers say they are beginning to reach conclusions.

"What is very interesting about them is they exhibit very sophisticated social interaction," Beeching said. "They form pair bonds. Males and females work together to raise their young. In some cases they will defend the young and will also do brood adoption, adopting fish that are not their own. At an evolutionary level, the idea is there is safety in numbers. In their particular ecological environment, parental care pays."

One of their original discoveries involves males' preferences in a mate. Beeching said males choose the largest female available because it helps to propagate the species.