The effects of environmental pollutants on complex fish behaviour: Integrating behavioural and physiological indicators of toxicity

Graham R. Scott, Katherine A. Sloman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

759 Citations (Scopus)


Environmental pollutants such as metals, pesticides, and other organics pose serious risks to many aquatic organisms. Accordingly, a great deal of previous research has characterized physiological mechanisms of toxicity in animals exposed to contaminants. In contrast, effects of contaminants on fish behaviour are less frequently studied. Because behaviour links physiological function with ecological processes, behavioural indicators of toxicity appear ideal for assessing the effects of aquatic pollutants on fish populations. Here we consider the many toxicants that disrupt complex fish behaviours, such as predator avoidance, reproductive, and social behaviours. Toxicant exposure often completely eliminates the performance of behaviours that are essential to fitness and survival in natural ecosystems, frequently after exposures of lesser magnitude than those causing significant mortality. Unfortunately, the behavioural toxicity of many xenobiotics is still unknown, warranting their future study. Physiological effects of toxicants in the literature include disruption of sensory, hormonal, neurological, and metabolic systems, which are likely to have profound implications for many fish behaviours. However, little toxicological research has sought to integrate the behavioural effects of toxicants with physiological processes. Those studies that take this multidisciplinary approach add important insight into possible mechanisms of behavioural alteration. The most commonly observed links with behavioural disruption include cholinesterase (ChE) inhibition, altered brain neurotransmitter levels, sensory deprivation, and impaired gonadal or thyroid hormone levels. Even less frequently studied are the implications of interrelated changes in behaviour and physiology caused by aquatic pollutants for fish populations. We conclude that future integrative, multidisciplinary research is clearly needed to increase the significance and usefulness of behavioural indicators for aquatic toxicology, and aim to highlight specific areas for consideration.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)369-392
Number of pages24
JournalAquatic Toxicology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • Toxicology
  • Metals
  • Pesticides
  • Predator avoidance
  • Reproduction
  • Dominance
  • Olfaction
  • Endocrine disruption
  • Neurotoxicology
  • Metabolism


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