Resource ownership often increases an individual's aggressiveness and its probability of defeating a competitor. Individuals contesting resource owners could therefore incur higher costs, making individuals reluctant to compete with owners. We tested the hypothesis that animals use asymmetry in resource ownership as a cue for contest costs and adjust contest decisions accordingly. Using a mangrove rivulus fish (Kryptolebias marmoratus), we staged (1) contests with a randomly assigned asymmetry in resource ownership (one fish was provided with a shelter) and (2) contests in which neither fish had a shelter. Owners that were in their shelters at the contest start showed a greater tendency to fight and won more contests than their intruder opponents; those outside the shelter at the start did not. Compared with fish in contests with no shelters at stake, shelter owners had a higher tendency to fight whether or not they were in their shelters at the start; intruders, however, had a lower tendency to fight only against owners that were inside the shelter at the start. These results demonstrate (1) that ownership status influences both owners' and intruders' contest decisions (and in opposite directions), producing a detectable ownership advantage and (2) that intruders required confirmation of their opponents' ownership status before retreating without challenging them. Ownership status per se is therefore important to the fish's contest decisions.
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