Exposure to a contextually neutral stressor potentiates fear conditioning in juvenile rainbow trout,Oncorhynchus mykiss

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Organisms faced with stressors deploy a suite of adaptive responses in the form of behavioral, physiological and cognitive modifications to overcome the challenge. Interactive effects of these responses are known to influence learning and memory processes and facilitation is thought to be dependent, in part, upon contextual relevance of the stressor to the learning task. Predation is one such stressor for prey animals, and their ability to manage reliable information about predators is essential for adaptive antipredator strategies. Here, we investigated (i) the influence cortisol has on the ability of juvenile rainbow trout to learn and retain conditioned antipredator responses to predatory cues, and (ii) whether conditioned behavioral and physiological responses to predator cues are fixed or deployed in a threat-sensitive manner. Trout were fed cortisol-coated pellets minutes prior to a conditioning event where they were exposed to novel predator odor paired with chemical alarm cues (unconditioned stimulus). We tested for conditioned responses by exposing trout to predator cues after 2, 4 or 10 days and subsequently documented physiological and behavioral responses. Both control and cortisol-fed trout learned the predator odor and responded 2 and 4 days post conditioning. However, at 10 days only cortisol-fed trout maintained strong behavioral responses to predator cues. Interestingly, we failed to find conditioned physiological responses to predator odor despite the presence of threat-sensitive cortisol responses to the unconditioned stimulus. Our findings suggest cortisol exposure prior to predator-learning may enhance retention of conditioned responses, even without a contextual link between stressor source and learning task.HIGHLIGHTSTrout can elicit threat-sensitive cortisol responses to chemical alarm cues.Cortisol-augmented meals can alter antipredator responses to unconditioned stimuli.Cortisol exposure before conditioning enhanced retention of conditioned responses.Retention enhanced despite lack of contextual link between stressor and learning.

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