Using physiology and behaviour to understand the responses of fish early life stages to toxicants

K. A. Sloman, P. L. McNeil

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Citations (Scopus)


The use of early life stages of fishes (embryos and larvae) in toxicity testing has been in existence for a long time, generally utilizing endpoints such as morphological defects and mortality. Behavioural endpoints, however, may represent a more insightful evaluation of the ecological effects of toxicants. Indeed, recent years have seen a considerable increase in the use of behavioural measurements in early life stages reflecting a substantial rise in zebrafish Danio rerio early life-stage toxicity testing and the development of automated behavioural monitoring systems. Current behavioural endpoints identified for early life stages in response to toxicant exposure include spontaneous activity, predator avoidance, capture of live food, shoaling ability and interaction with other individuals. Less frequently used endpoints include measurement of anxiogenic behaviours and cognitive ability, both of which are suggested here as future indicators of toxicant disruption. For many simple behavioural endpoints, there is still a need to link behavioural effects with ecological relevance; currently, only a limited number of studies have addressed this issue. Understanding the physiological mechanisms that underlie toxicant effects on behaviour so early in life has received far less attention, perhaps because physiological measurements can be difficult to carry out on individuals of this size. The most commonly established physiological links with behavioural disruption in early life stages are similar to those seen in juveniles and adults including sensory deprivation (olfaction, lateral line and vision), altered neurogenesis and neurotransmitter concentrations. This review highlights the importance of understanding the integrated behavioural and physiological response of early life stages to toxicants and identifies knowledge gaps which present exciting areas for future research.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2175-2198
JournalJournal of Fish Biology
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2012


  • anxiogenic
  • Danio rerio
  • ecotoxicology
  • embryo
  • larvae
  • zebrafish


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