Copper accumulation by stickleback nests containing spiggin

G. L.L. Pinho*, C. M.G. Martins, I. Barber

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The three-spined stickleback is a ubiquitous fish of marine, brackish and freshwater ecosystems across the Northern hemisphere that presents intermediate sensitivity to copper. Male sticklebacks display a range of elaborate reproductive behaviours that include nest construction. To build the nests, each male binds nesting material together using an endogenous glycoprotein nesting glue, known as ‘spiggin’. Spiggin is a cysteine-rich protein and, therefore, potentially binds heavy metals present in the environment. The aim of this study was to investigate the capacity of stickleback nests to accumulate copper from environmental sources. Newly built nests, constructed by male fish from polyester threads in laboratory aquaria, were immersed in copper solutions ranging in concentration from 21.1–626.6 μg Cu L−1. Bundles of polyester threads from aquaria without male fish were also immersed in the same copper solutions. After immersion, nests presented higher amounts of copper than the thread bundles, indicating a higher capacity of nests to bind this metal. A significant, positive correlation between the concentration of copper in the exposure solution and in the exposed nests was identified, but there was no such relationship for thread bundles. Since both spiggin synthesis and male courtship behaviour are under the control of circulating androgens, we predicted that males with high courtship scores would produce and secrete high levels of the spiggin protein. In the present study, nests built by high courtship score males accumulated more copper than those built by low courtship score males. Considering the potential of spiggin to bind metals, the positive relationship between fish courtship and spiggin secretion seems to explain the higher amount of copper on the nests from the fish showing high behaviour scores. Further work is now needed to determine the consequences of the copper binding potential of spiggin in stickleback nests for the health and survival of developing embryos.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)13554-13559
Number of pages6
JournalEnvironmental Science and Pollution Research
Issue number13
Publication statusPublished - 01 Jul 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Aquatic Contamination
  • Copper
  • Reproductive Behaviour
  • Spiggin
  • Stickleback
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical/analysis
  • Animals
  • Copper/analysis
  • Environmental Exposure/analysis
  • Smegmamorpha/metabolism
  • Male
  • Fish Proteins/chemistry


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