Signaling aggression

Moira J. van Staaden, William Searcy, Roger T. Hanlon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

31 Scopus citations

Abstract

From psychological and sociological standpoints, aggression is regarded as intentional behavior aimed at inflicting pain and manifested by hostility and attacking behaviors. In contrast, biologists define aggression as behavior associated with attack or escalation toward attack, omitting any stipulation about intentions and goals. Certain animal signals are strongly associated with escalation toward attack and have the same function as physical attack in intimidating opponents and winning contests, and ethologists therefore consider them an integral part of aggressive behavior. Aggressive signals have been molded by evolution to make them ever more effective in mediating interactions between the contestants. Early theoretical analyses of aggressive signaling suggested that signals could never be honest about fighting ability or aggressive intentions because weak individuals would exaggerate such signals whenever they were effective in influencing the behavior of opponents. More recent game theory models, however, demonstrate that given the right costs and constraints, aggressive signals are both reliable about strength and intentions and effective in influencing contest outcomes. Here, we review the role of signaling in lieu of physical violence, considering threat displays from an ethological perspective as an adaptive outcome of evolutionary selection pressures. Fighting prowess is conveyed by performance signals whose production is constrained by physical ability and thus limited to just some individuals, whereas aggressive intent is encoded in strategic signals that all signalers are able to produce. We illustrate recent advances in the study of aggressive signaling with case studies of charismatic taxa that employ a range of sensory modalities, viz. visual and chemical signaling in cephalopod behavior, and indicators of aggressive intent in the territorial calls of songbirds.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)23-49
Number of pages27
JournalAdvances in Genetics
Volume75
DOIs
StatePublished - Nov 17 2011

Keywords

  • Aggressiveness
  • Communication
  • Game theory
  • Threat displays

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics

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