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Ecology. 2009 Jun;90(6):1564-73.

Reliable cues and signals of fruit quality are contingent on the habitat in black elder (Sambucus nigra).

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Faculty of Biology, University of Freiburg, Department of Evolutionary Biology and Animal Ecology, Hauptstrasse 1, 79104 Freiburg, Germany.


Communication mediates interactions between organisms and can be based on signals or cues. Signals are selected for their signaling function, whereas cues evolve for reasons other than signaling. To be evolutionarily stable, communication needs to be reliable on average, but the mechanisms that enforce reliability are hotly debated in light of strong environmental influence on signals and cues. While fruit quality in black elder (Sambucus nigra) is unrelated to fruit color, it is indicated by alternative pedicel phenotypes. Information on fruit quality has thus been transferred from the fruit to the developmentally associated pedicels, which are environmentally determined cues. Within each phenotype, color variation indicates fruit quality. Communication by black elder is thus reliable, but the proximate mechanisms enforcing reliability are habitat specific. High irradiance increases both the contrasts of the visual cue and fruit quality in the anthocyanin-based red pedicel phenotype, while shaded plants of the chlorophyll-based green phenotype apparently use signals by forgoing photosynthesis. This is because lower chlorophyll content in green pedicels creates contrasting pedicels, and higher contrasts indicate higher sugar content in the fruits of green pedicels. Because anthocyanins are light-induced, plants use cues when exposed to high irradiance, whereas they apparently use costly signals in the shade by reducing chlorophyll content in the pedicels. In behavioral field and laboratory experiments we document that avian seed dispersers select among pedicel phenotypes that indicate different fruit quality. Plants can thus increase their reproductive success by sending highly informative cues. Our results indicate how reliable information transfer can be maintained both in cues and signals in spite of substantial environmental influence on visual traits.

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