How do you make a fish come out of hiding? Pair it up with a shy mate, a study published Thursday has found.
British researchers studying the behavior of tiny stickleback fish have found that they are much more willing to take risks in search of food in pairs than alone.
Not surprising, perhaps, given that fish tend to find protection in numbers.
But they also discovered that the fish would slip into the role of leader or follower and that the shier the follower, the bolder the leader would become.
"Our study shows that the process by which leaders and followers emerge is a dynamic one," said Andrea Manica of the University of Cambridge.
"Individuals aren't simply born leaders or followers, but their role in a pair -- and, we could speculate, in a larger group -- is the result of social feedback where everyone plays a role."
Manica and her team first sorted the bold from the shy by studying which fish were more likely to leave the safety of weeds at the deep end of a tank to access food in a shallower, empty part of the tank.
They then removed an opaque partition so the fish could see their neighbor and noted how often the fish left the reeds and in what order.
All the fish made far more forays for food and synchronized their trips out of cover, with the bolder fish leading the bulk of the time.
Bold fish paired with the shiest mates became significantly more prone to leave cover and stay there even after the shy fish returned to the reeds, the study published in the peer review journal Current Biology found.
The findings show that leadership, which is often exhibited in many different kinds of animals, arises from differences in the way individual fish respond to their partner's movements, the researchers said.
"If a shy individual is paired with a very bold individual, the latter 'inspires' the former into becoming a very faithful follower," Manica said.
"Conversely, a very shy individual seems to bring out the leadership of the bolder companion, which becomes a much stronger leader than if it was paired with a less shy companion."