Threshold assessment, categorical perception, and the evolution of reliable signaling.

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Animals often use assessment signals to communicate information about their quality to a variety of receivers, including potential mates, competitors, and predators. But what maintains reliable signaling and prevents signalers from signaling a better quality than they actually have? Previous work has shown that reliable signaling can be maintained if signalers pay fitness costs for signaling at different intensities and these costs are greater for lower quality individuals than higher quality ones. Models supporting this idea typically assume that continuous variation in signal intensity is perceived as such by receivers. In many organisms, however, receivers have threshold responses to signals, in which they respond to a signal if it is above a threshold value and do not respond if the signal is below the threshold value. Here, we use both analytical and individual-based models to investigate how such threshold responses affect the reliability of assessment signals. We show that reliable signaling systems can break down when receivers have an invariant threshold response, but reliable signaling can be rescued if there is variation among receivers in the location of their threshold boundary. Our models provide an important step toward understanding signal evolution when receivers have threshold responses to continuous signal variation.





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Peniston, James H, Patrick A Green, Matthew N Zipple and Stephen Nowicki (2020). Threshold assessment, categorical perception, and the evolution of reliable signaling. Evolution; international journal of organic evolution, 74(12). pp. 2591–2604. 10.1111/evo.14122 Retrieved from

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Stephen Nowicki

Professor of Biology

Our lab studies animal communication, asking both proximate and ultimate questions about how signaling systems function and how they evolve. Most of our work is done with birds, although lab members have studied a variety of other taxa. One major theme that runs through our work is to understand how signal reliability (“honesty”) is maintained in the face of the competing evolutionary interests of signal senders and receivers. We use both laboratory experiments and field-based analyses to test hypotheses about the costs of signal production, which theory suggests are necessary to maintain reliability. For example, we have demonstrated that the reliability of birdsong as a signal of quality in the context of mate choice is maintained by variation in the response of young birds to early developmental stress, which in turn affects brain development and song learning. Another theme that runs through our work concerns how animals themselves perceive signals, in particular the role of categorical perception in communication. Our work here began with birdsong, for example demonstrating context-dependent variation in category boundaries that define the smallest acoustic units of song (“notes”), and identifying categorical responses of neurons in the “song system” of the brain to variation in those notes. More recently, we have begun to study categorical perception in visual signaling, demonstrating for example that the carotenoid-based orange-red coloration commonly used in assessment signaling may be perceived categorically. This finding illustrates the connection between our interests in perception and reliability, given that canonical models of reliability assume continuous perception.

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