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Long-term individual marking of small freshwater fish: the utility of Visual Implant Elastomer tags
- Jungwirth, Arne, Balzarini, Valentina, Zöttl, Markus, Salzmann, Andrea, Taborsky, Michael, Frommen, Joachim G.
- Behavioral ecology and sociobiology 2019 v.73 no.4 pp. 49
- Neolamprologus pulcher, alloparental behavior, amphibians, birds, color, data collection, freshwater fish, longevity, mammals, mortality, reproductive success, risk, social behavior, wild animals, Lake Tanganyika
- Tracking wild animals over long periods of time is a non-trivial challenge. This has caused a bias in the availability of individual-based long-term datasets with the majority including birds and mammals. Visual Implant Elastomer (VIE) tags are now a widely used technique that may facilitate the collection of such data for fish and amphibians. However, VIE tags might have important drawbacks. Overall, four potential issues with VIE tags have been proposed: tag loss or misidentification, limited number of individual identifiers, enhanced mortality risk, and effects on intra-specific interactions. Here, we present three experiments in which we investigated these potential problems with VIE tagging in small freshwater fish both in the laboratory and in the wild, using the cooperatively breeding Lake Tanganyika cichlid Neolamprologus pulcher. We find VIE tags to be generally suitable for work with these fish as they did not impair survival, were recognisable up to 2 years after injection, and did not generally disturb group formation. Nevertheless, we identify specific issues of VIE tagging, including colour- and position-dependent variation in tag identification rates, and indications that specific colours may influence social behaviour. Our results demonstrate the suitability of VIE tags for long-term studies on small freshwater fish, while also highlighting the need of validating this method carefully for any species and study. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: Information on the survival, dispersal, and reproductive success of wild individuals across their lifespan is among the most valuable data in Behavioural Ecology. Because tracking of free-ranging individuals over extended periods of time is challenging, there exists a bias in the taxonomic distribution of such long-term datasets. Here, we investigate the suitability of visible implant elastomers (VIE) as a tracking technique to allow for the collection of such data also in small tropical freshwater fish. We show that VIE tags neither alter social behaviour in our study species, nor do they reduce survival, but they enable the tracking of wild individuals across years. We also identify colours and tag positions that are less suitable. We conclude that VIE tags can help produce long-term datasets also for small fish, provided certain precautions are met.