Social buffering of stress in a group-living fish
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Living in groups affords individuals many benefits, including the opportunity to reduce stress. In mammals, such 'social buffering' of stress is mediated by affiliative relationships and production of the neuropeptide oxytocin, but whether these mechanisms facilitate social buffering across vertebrates remains an open question. Therefore, we evaluated whether the social environment influenced the behavioural and physiological recovery from an acute stressor in a group-living cichlid, Neolamprologus pulcher. Individual fish that recovered with their social group displayed lower cortisol levels than individuals that recovered alone. This social buffering of the stress response was associated with a tendency towards lower transcript abundance of arginine vasotocin and isotocin in the preoptic area of the brain, suggesting reduced neural activation of the stress axis. Individuals that recovered with their social group quickly resumed normal behaviour but received fewer affiliative acts following the stressor. Further experiments revealed similar cortisol levels between individuals that recovered in visual contact with their own social group and those in visual contact with a novel but non-aggressive social group. Collectively, our results suggest that affiliation and familiarity per se do not mediate social buffering in this group-living cichlid, and the behavioural and physiological mechanisms responsible for social buffering may vary across vertebrates.
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