Most animals fight by repeating complex stereotypic behaviours, yet the internal structure of these behaviours has rarely been dissected in detail. We characterized the internal structure of fighting behaviours by developing a machine learning pipeline that measures and classifies the behaviour of individual unmarked animals on a sub-second time scale. This allowed us to quantify several previously hidden features of zebrafish fighting strategies. We found strong correlations between the velocity of the attacker and the defender, indicating a dynamic matching of approach and avoidance efforts. While velocity matching was ubiquitous, the spatial dynamics of attacks showed phase-specific differences. Contest-phase attacks were characterized by a paradoxical sideways attraction of the retreating animal towards the attacker, suggesting that the defender combines avoidance manoeuvres with display-like manoeuvres. Post-resolution attacks lacked display-like features and the defender was avoidance focused. From the perspective of the winner, game-theory modelling further suggested that highly energetically costly post-resolution attacks occurred because the winner was trying to increase its relative dominance over the loser. Overall, the rich structure of zebrafish motor coordination during fighting indicates a greater complexity and layering of strategies than has previously been recognized.
Laan, A., Iglesias-Julios, M., & De Polavieja, G. G. (2018). Zebrafish aggression on the sub-second time scale: Evidence for mutual motor coordination and multifunctional attack manoeuvres. Royal Society Open Science, 5(8). https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.180679