Information received from the visual and chemical senses is qualitatively different. For prey species in aquatic environments, visual cues are spatially and temporally reliable but risky as the prey and predator must often be in close proximity. Chemical cues, by contrast, can be distorted by currents or linger and thus provide less reliable spatial and temporal information, but can be detected from a safe distance. Chemical cues are therefore often the first detected and may provide a context in which prey respond to subsequent ambiguous cues (“context hypothesis”). Depending on this context, early chemical cues may also alert prey to attend to imminent cues in other sensory modalities (“alerting hypothesis”). In the context of predation risk, for example, it is intuitive that individuals become more responsive to subsequent ambiguous cues across sensory modalities. Consistent with the context hypothesis, guppies, Poecilia reticulata, exposed to conspecific alarm cue reduced activity, a classic fright response among fish, in response to a water disturbance more than those exposed to cues of unharmed conspecifics or a water control. Despite this reduction in activity, guppies exposed to alarm cue were more attentive to visual cues than those exposed to the other chemical cues, as predicted by the alerting hypothesis. These responses contrasted with those of guppies exposed to chemical cues of undisturbed, unharmed conspecifics, which were relatively unaffected by the disturbance. This is the first study indicating that unambiguous cues detected by one sensory modality affect animal responses to subsequent ambiguous multimodal cues.
Stephenson, J. F. (2016). Keeping eyes peeled: guppies exposed to chemical alarm cue are more responsive to ambiguous visual cues. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 70(4), 575–584. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-016-2076-4