BACKGROUND: The freshwater sculpins (genus Cottus) are small, bottom-living fishes widely distributed in North America and Europe. The taxonomy of European species has remained unresolved for a long time due to the overlap of morphological characters. Sound production has already been documented in some cottid representatives, with sounds being involved in courtship and agonistic interactions. Although the movements associated with sound production have been observed, the underlying mechanism remains incomplete. Here, we focus on two closely related species from Belgium: C. rhenanus and C. perifretum. This study aims 1) to record and to compare acoustic communication in both species, 2) to give further insight into the sound-producing mechanism and 3) to look for new morphological traits allowing species differentiation.
RESULTS: Both Cottus species produce multiple-pulsed agonistic sounds using a similar acoustic pattern: the first interpulse duration is always longer, making the first pulse unit distinct from the others. Recording sound production and hearing abilities showed a clear relationship between the sound spectra and auditory thresholds in both species: the peak frequencies of calls are around 150 Hz, which corresponds to their best hearing sensitivity. However, it appears that these fishes could not hear acoustic signals produced by conspecifics in their noisy habitat considering their hearing threshold expressed as sound pressure (~ 125 dB re 1 μPa). High-speed video recordings highlighted that each sound is produced during a complete back and forth movement of the pectoral girdle.
CONCLUSIONS: Both Cottus species use an acoustic pattern that remained conserved during species diversification. Surprisingly, calls do not seem to have a communicative function. On the other hand, fish could detect substrate vibrations resulting from movements carried out during sound production. Similarities in temporal and spectral characteristics also suggest that both species share a common sound-producing mechanism, likely based on pectoral girdle vibrations. From a morphological point of view, only the shape of the spinelike scales covering the body allows species differentiation.
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