Sexual harassment in fish breaks down social structure

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Humans aren t the only ones to suffer from sexual harassment.

A recent study has shown that sexual harassment in fish can lead to a breakdown in social structure and even an inability to recognise each other.

The study undertaken by scientists at the Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour at the University of Exeter focussed on a population of wild guppies from Trinidad, where the males have previously been observed to harass females excessively.

Lead author Dr Safi Darden said: Sexual harassment is a burden that females of many species ranging from insects to primates suffer and the results of our work suggest that this harassment may limit the opportunities for females to form social bonds across a range of species.

The study compared groups of guppies where there were a large number of males and therefore a higher degree of sexual harassment with groups where there were no males at all.

The findings showed that females who had experienced a lot of sexual harassment were less able to recognise the other females in the group and were more likely to form bonds with new females introduced from outside their network.

Co-author Dr Darren Croft of the University of Exeter said: This is an extremely interesting result as it appears that females that experience sexual harassment actually prefer to avoid other females with whom they associate the negative experience.

Those females that were grouped without males were better able to recognise one another and also showed a preference for females from within, rather than outside, the group.

Dr Safi Darden said that previously the implications of male harassment were little known and added: The health and well-being of an individual is dependent, in part, on having strong social bonds with others and females that have weakened social bonds may be less likely to survive in the wild. This makes the effect of male harassment quite significant.

The team are unsure as to why sexual harassment should have such a marked effect but think that it may be because the time they spend dealing with unwanted male attention prevents them from forming relationships with other females.

They believe females from groups with more males may bond with females from outside in order to try to establish themselves in a more favourable environment.