Research ArticleEVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY

Inconsistent sexual signaling degrades optimal mating decisions in animals

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Science Advances  15 May 2020:
Vol. 6, no. 20, eaax3957
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aax3957

Abstract

Like political stump speeches and product advertisements, animal signals are highly repetitive and function to persuade receivers to adopt behaviors benefiting the signaler. And like potential constituents and consumers, receivers assess signals to inform their behavioral decisions. However, inconsistency in sexual signals is widespread and potentially injects uncertainty into mating decisions. Here, we show that females fail to make optimal mating decisions based on assessments of signal quality due to inconsistency in signal production. Natural levels of inconsistency markedly reduced female preference expression for a nonarbitrary signal of male quality. Inconsistency reshaped preferences even more profoundly than the better-known impediment of ambient noise. To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration of how inconsistent messaging degrades optimal decision-making in animals, with implications for understanding signal evolution.

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