Fishy aroma of social status: urinary chemo-signalling of territoriality in male fathead minnows (Pimephales promelas)

PLoS One. 2012;7(11):e46579. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0046579. Epub 2012 Nov 7.


Chemical structures of several urinary reproductive pheromones in fish have been identified, and their role in the chemical communication of reproductive condition is well characterized. On the contrary, the role of chemical communication in signalling of social/territorial status in fish is poorly understood. Fathead minnows are an example of a fish species whose life history traits appear conducive to evolution of chemical communication systems that confer information about social/territorial status. Male reproduction in this species is dependent upon their ability to acquire and defend a high quality nesting territory, and to attract a female to the nest. We hypothesized that fathead minnow males use visual and urine-derived chemical cues to signal territorial status. To test this hypothesis, effects of territorial acquisition on male-specific secondary sex characteristics (SSCs) and urine volumes were first assessed. Second, frequencies of male urination in varying social contexts were examined. Finally, nuclear magnetic resonance-based metabolomics was used to identify urinary metabolites that were differentially excreted in the urine of territorial versus non-territorial males. The expression of SSCs, sperm, and urine volumes increased with territory acquisition, and either remained unchanged or decreased in non-territorial males. Frequency of male urination increased significantly in the presence of females (but not males), suggesting that females are the main target of the urinary signals. Territorial and non-territorial males had distinct urinary metabolomic profiles. An unforeseen finding was that one could discern future territorial status of males, based on their initial metabolomic profiles. Bile acids and volatile amines were identified as potential chemical signals of social status in the fathead minnow. The finding that trimethylamine (a fishy smelling volatile amine) may be a social cue is particularly interesting, because it is known to bind trace amine-associated receptors, indicating that these receptors may play role in chemical signalling of social status in fish.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cyprinidae / physiology*
  • Cyprinidae / urine*
  • Female
  • Male
  • Metabolome
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal
  • Territoriality*
  • Urination
  • Urine / chemistry

Grant support

This work was funded by the U.S. EPA and University of Saint Thomas. DM was also funded by the National Academy of Sciences through National Research Council's Research Associate Program. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.