Sex differences in social buffering and social contagion of alarm responses in zebrafish

Anim Cogn. 2023 Jul;26(4):1307-1318. doi: 10.1007/s10071-023-01779-w. Epub 2023 May 15.


The alarm substance in fish is a pheromone released by injured individuals after a predator attack. When detected by other fish, it triggers fear/defensive responses, such as freezing and erratic movement behaviours. Such responses can also help other fish in the shoal to modulate their own behaviours: decreasing a fear response if conspecifics have not detected the alarm substance (social buffering) or triggering a fear response if conspecifics detected the alarm substance (social contagion). Response variation to these social phenomena is likely to depend on sex. Because males have higher-risk life-history strategies than females, they may respond more to social buffering where they risk not responding to a real predator attack, while females should respond more to social contagion because they only risk responding to a false alarm. Using zebrafish, we explored how the response of males and females to the presence/absence of the alarm substance is modified by the alarmed/unalarmed behaviour of an adjacent shoal of conspecifics. We found that, in social buffering, males decreased freezing more than females as expected, but in social contagion males also responded more than females by freezing at a higher intensity. Males were, therefore, more sensitive to visual information, while females responded more to the alarm substance itself. Because visual information updates faster than chemical information, males took more risks but potentially more benefits as well, because a quicker adjustment of a fear response allows to save energy to other activities. These sex differences provide insight into the modifying effect of life-history strategies on the use of social information.

Keywords: Alarm substance; Life-history strategies; Sex differences; Social buffering; Social contagion; Zebrafish.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology
  • Female
  • Male
  • Movement
  • Pheromones / pharmacology
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Zebrafish* / physiology


  • Pheromones