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Proc Biol Sci. 2009 May 7;276(1662):1585-91. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2008.1822. Epub 2009 Feb 25.

Flat lizard female mimics use sexual deception in visual but not chemical signals.

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  • 1School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, Republic of South Africa.


Understanding what constrains signalling and maintains signal honesty is a central theme in animal communication. Clear cases of dishonest signalling, and the conditions under which they are used, represent an important avenue for improved understanding of animal communication systems. Female mimicry, when certain males take on the appearance of females, is most commonly a male alternative reproductive tactic that is condition-dependent. A number of adaptive explanations for female mimicry have been proposed including avoiding the costs of aggression, gaining an advantage in combat, sneaking copulations with females on the territories of other males, gaining physiological benefits and minimizing the risk of predation. Previous studies of female mimicry have focused on a single mode of communication, although most animals communicate using multiple signals. Male Augrabies flat lizards adopt alternative reproductive tactics in which some males (she-males) mimic the visual appearance of females. We experimentally tested in a wild population whether she-males are able to mimic females using both visual and chemical signals. We tested chemical recognition in the field by removing scent and relabelling females and she-males with either male or female scent. At a distance, typical males (he-males) could not distinguish she-males from females using visual signals, but during close encounters, he-males correctly determined the gender of she-males using chemical signals. She-males are therefore able to deceive he-males using visual but not chemical signals. To effectively deceive he-males, she-males avoid close contact with he-males during which chemical cues would reveal their deceit. This strategy is probably adaptive, because he-males are aggressive and territorial; by mimicking females, she-males are able to move about freely and gain access to females on the territories of resident males.

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