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Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2007 Mar 29;362(1479):441-7.

Robustness and complexity co-constructed in multimodal signalling networks.

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Santa Fe Institute, 1399 Hyde Park Road, Santa Fe, NM 87501, USA.


In animal communication, signals are frequently emitted using different channels (e.g. frequencies in a vocalization) and different modalities (e.g. gestures can accompany vocalizations). We explore two explanations that have been provided for multimodality: (i) selection for high information transfer through dedicated channels and (ii) increasing fault tolerance or robustness through multichannel signals. Robustness relates to an accurate decoding of a signal when parts of a signal are occluded. We show analytically in simple feed-forward neural networks that while a multichannel signal can solve the robustness problem, a multimodal signal does so more effectively because it can maximize the contribution made by each channel while minimizing the effects of exclusion. Multimodality refers to sets of channels where within each set information is highly correlated. We show that the robustness property ensures correlations among channels producing complex, associative networks as a by-product. We refer to this as the principle of robust overdesign. We discuss the biological implications of this for the evolution of combinatorial signalling systems; in particular, how robustness promotes enough redundancy to allow for a subsequent specialization of redundant components into novel signals.

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