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The handicap theory, in which the cost of waste guarantees honest advertising, is being used increasingly in solutions to the problems of biological signal evolution. However, it is usually applied to systems which are insufficiently understood to allow testing against alternative theories. In particular, the ability of the handicap theory to explain the design of signals has never been properly tested. We test its ability to explain signal design features in an unusually well studied area of biological signalling: warning coloration and mimicry. Since a full handicap model proves immediately unrealistic, we modify the model to incorporate realistic assumptions about predator learning. Using this model we explicitly compare the handicap theory with a purely "conventional" signalling model and with a null model. Predictions relating to three key design features (conspicuousness, pattern similarity, and Batesian mimicry) are compared, and tested against available data. Although many predictions remain to be tested adequately, we conclude that: (i) conspicuousness is most plausibly explained by the conventional signalling theory that ascribes the function of conspicuous coloration to signal efficacy rather than waste; (ii) pattern similarity, within and between species, is unlikely to be the result of the need to produce similar degrees of conspicuousness, as predicted by the handicap theory, but is plausibly explained as the result of pattern generalization amongst discriminating predators, as predicted by the conventional signalling theory; and (iii) Batesian mimicry is predicted by the conventional signalling theory, but not the handicap theory. Therefore the handicap theory fails to provide an adequate explanation of the main design features of at least one major signalling system.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





400 - 416


Aposematism, conventional signalling theory, frequency-dependence, handicap signalling theory, honesty, mimicry, unpalatable prey, warning coloration