A general model of biological signals, from cues to handicaps
Biernaskie J., Perry J., Grafen A.
Organisms sometimes appear to use extravagant traits, or “handicaps”, to signal their quality to an interested receiver. Before they were used as signals, many of these traits might have been selected to increase with individual quality for reasons apart from conveying information, allowing receivers to use the traits as “cues” of quality. However, current theory does not explain when and why cues of individual quality become exaggerated into costly handicaps. We address this here, using a game-theoretic model of adaptive signalling. Our model predicts that: (1) signals will honestly reflect signaler quality whenever there is a positive relationship between individual quality and the signalling trait’s naturally-selected, non-informational optimum; and (2) the slope of this relationship will determine the amount of costly signal exaggeration, with more exaggeration favored when the slope is more shallow. A shallow slope means that a lower quality male would pay only a small fitness cost to have the same trait value as a higher quality male, and this drives the exaggeration of signals as high-quality signalers are selected to distinguish themselves. Our model reveals a simple and potentially widespread mechanism for ensuring signal honesty and predicts a natural continuum of signalling strategies, from cost-free cues to costly handicaps.