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Proc Biol Sci. 2000 Apr 7;267(1444):719-24.

Dishonest signalling in a fiddler crab.

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Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Balboa, Republic of Panama.


Animal communication theory predicts that low-frequency cheating should be common in generally honest signalling systems. However, perhaps because cheats are designed to go undetected, there are few examples of dishonest signals in natural populations. Here we present what we believe is the first example of a dishonest signal which is used commonly by males to attract mates and fight sexual rivals. After losing their large claw male fiddler crabs (Uca annulipes) grow a new one which has less mass, is a less effective weapon and costs less to use in signalling than an equivalent-length claw of the original form. Males with original claws do not differentially fight males with regenerated claws even though they are likely to win. Regenerated claws effectively bluff fighting ability and deter potential opponents before they fight. During mate searching, females do not discriminate against males with low-mass, regenerated claws, indicating that they are deceived as to the true costs males pay to produce sexual signals. Up to 44% of males in natural populations have regenerated claws, a level unanticipated by current signalling theory. The apparent rarity of cheating may be an artefact of the usual difficulty of detecting cheats and dishonesty may be quite common.

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