From dissuading predators to gaining an edge on intraspecific rivals, animals have evolved weapons to meet various needs. Those with the most extreme weapons often use them to battle conspecifics, but some weapons defend against predation and others signal prowess to prospective mates and rivals. Many fishes have evolved armaments, but humans rarely observe these structures in action due to the inaccessibility of many weapon-bearing fish species. For example, how sculpins use the diverse horn-like spines that project from their head remains a mystery. We deduced the function of the weaponized preopercle in the 16 species of sculpins in the subfamily Oligocottinae by determining whether they exhibit three well-documented hallmarks of offensive weapons in terrestrial animals: ontogenetic change, sexual dimorphism, and fluctuating asymmetry. Geometric morphometrics of micro-computed tomography (μCT) scans show no sexual dimorphism in preopercular spine shape but reveal phylogenetically widespread ontogenetic shape change. Fluctuating asymmetry is low to moderate across species. Taken together, these results suggest that despite their varied reproductive habits, frequent territoriality, and possession of weapons that resemble bovid horns, oligocottine sculpins evolved their spines primarily to defend against predators.

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