Inconsistent sexual signaling degrades optimal mating decisions in animals

Jessie C. Tanner, Mark A. Bee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbereaax3957
JournalScience Advances
Issue number20
StatePublished - May 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank all members of the Bee lab 2015-2017 for assistance collecting treefrogs and running trials; S. Jørgensen, N. Lee, and C. Donohue for coding advice; A. Vélez, K. Schrode, and J. Ward for help with call recordings and analyses; H. Brumm, H. C. Gerhardt, G. Klump, and J. Schul for helpful discussions about this work; M. Zuk, R. G. Shaw, H. C. Gerhardt, A. T. Baugh, and two anonymous referees for feedback on an earlier draft of this manuscript; and the Three Rivers Park District and Minnesota State Parks for access to field sites. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under grant no. 00039202, a Ford Foundation Pre-Doctoral Fellowship, an Animal Behavior Society Student Research Grant, and a Joyce Davenport Fellowship in Natural History through the Bell Museum of Natural History to J.C.T. and by a National Science Foundation Grant (IOS-1452831) to M.A.B.

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2020 The Authors, some rights reserved


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