Social control of unreliable signals of strength in male but not female crayfish, Cherax destructor

Gregory M. Walter, Vincent O. Van Uitregt, Robbie S. Wilson

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The maintenance of unreliable signals within animal populations remains a highly controversial subject in studies of animal communication. Crustaceans are an ideal group for studying unreliable signals of strength because their chela muscles are cryptically concealed beneath an exoskeleton, making it difficult for competitors to visually assess an opponent's strength. In this study, we examined the importance of social avenues for mediating the possible advantages gained by unreliable signals of strength in crustaceans. To do this, we investigated the factors that determine social dominance and the relative importance of signalling and fighting during aggressive encounters in male and female freshwater crayfish, Cherax destructor. Like other species of crayfish, we expected substantial variation in weapon force for a given weapon size, making the assessment of actual fighting ability of an opponent difficult from signalling alone. In addition, we expected fighting would be used to ensure that individuals that are weak for their signal (i.e. chela) size would not achieve higher than expected dominance. For both male and female C. destructor, we found large variation in the actual force of their chela for any given weapon size, indicating that it is difficult for competitors to accurately assess an opponent's force on signal size alone. For males, these unreliable signals of strength were controlled socially through increased levels of fighting and a decreased reliance on signalling, thus directly limiting the benefits accrued to individuals employing high-quality signals (large chelae) with only low resource holding potential. However, in contrast to our predictions, we found that females primarily relied on signalling to settle disputes, resulting in unreliable signals of strength being routinely used to establish dominance. The reliance by females on unreliable signals to determine dominance highlights our poor current understanding of the prevalence and distribution of dishonesty in animal communication.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3294-3299
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number19
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Biting
  • Performance
  • Sexual selection

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