Assessment of paradoxical signal reliability Grant

Assessment of paradoxical signal reliability .


  • Successful communication and social assessment require receivers to discern when signals are reliable and when they are not. Compounding the problem is that signal reliability varies between signalers and across time within signalers. Because communication systems are not intrinsically reliable, primates, especially humans, spend a great deal of time and resources assessing the reliability of information received from members of their own species. Surprisingly, hard-wired communication systems of animals with simpler communication systems than humans are proving no more reliable, and we do not know how receivers in these species deal with unreliability of signals. This project will focus on a species with less sophisticated cognition to examine how fundamental strategies have evolved to cope with unreliable signals, the most important outstanding scientific puzzle in the field of communication. The investigator will also continue a successful hands-on science pedagogy workshop series that brings inquiry-based teaching methods into middle school classrooms, as well as offering direct mentorship opportunities for minority college and high school students in the research lab. The proposed project will address the central question by determining (1) whether receivers know when signals are reliable and when they are not, (2) whether receivers have strategies for addressing variable reliability and (3) whether signalers compensate for a receiver's lack of trust by providing more reliable information through other means. Male electric fish (Brachyhypopomus gauderio) are ideal for such investigation because their signal waveforms encode body length and androgen level with near perfect reliability, or virtually no reliability. Signal reliability in this system depends on population density and food availability. These variables will be controlled in the lab to promote reliable and unreliable signals, and to create prior exposure of receivers to signals that vary in reliability. Behavioral mate choice and male-male competition experiments will determine whether receivers assess reliability of a male signal by (i) monitoring prevailing social and food conditions, (ii) reviewing recent signal reliability, or (iii) whether receivers ignore signals and assess other, more reliable traits. The project will also determine whether signalers compensate for their lack of reliability by making the desired information readily available through other sensory strategies. Both raw and analyzed data are secured by the investigator prior to publication and made available for electronic sharing upon acceptance of the resulting manuscripts.

date/time interval

  • May 15, 2015 - April 30, 2019

administered by

sponsor award ID

  • IOS-1457173

local award ID

  • AWD000000004822