"I'm finding that hard to believe"

We may think ourselves special, unique even, to have mastered the art of language. But our inability to talk to other animals, does not mean they’re mute. Watch a bumblebee waggle its body to others, or an octopus burst into colour when threatened, and we may be forced to rethink our uniqueness. Animals do not natter away for hours like us; instead they pulse specific bursts of information to the recipient. Therefore the term ‘signalling’ is more appropriate when discussing how animals communicate.

An animal signal is an act or structure produced by the sender, which conveys a specific message to alter the receiver’s behaviour. For example the furry body of a caterpillar warns a predator against its poisonous defence, whilst the dance of a peacock spider boasts the male’s good genes to the prospective female.

Simultaneous evolution via natural selection in both the sender and the receiver must occur for a signal to function. But if this is the case, surely the caterpillar should evolve to produce the signal of being poisonous, without actually being poisonous. In this case the caterpillar saves energy and also avoids being eaten. So the question arises, why are dishonest signals like this not common in nature?

Image: Fotolia

The laws of natural selection are the main reason that dishonesty isn’t viable in the long term. If a messenger delivers an empty threat, then the receiver will soon evolve to ignore it; in return the signaller has an ineffective signal and natural selection eventually eliminates it. It is therefore in the signaller’s best interest to produce an honest signal the majority of the time.

Although natural selection can come into play to eventually even things out, for some animals a more immediate method to determine honesty is required. One such method is punishment. An experiment conducted on the paper wasp elegantly describes this; in this species the wasps display their dominance by the number of black spots on their face. When scientists painted more spots on a low ranking wasp, and that wasp lost a fight it received a large degree of aggression, indicating that it doesn’t pay to lie.

Inability to fake a signal also allows direct assurance of honesty; this occurs when the message conveyed correlates to the ability to transmit that message. The intensity of which a deer roars, for example, is directly proportional to the size of its throat muscles and the size of its whole body and is therefore a good indicator of fighting ability. Signals that are costly also allow immediate detection of honesty. The large and bright tail feathers of a male peacock are costly as they impede flying and make the male more detectable to predators. This vulnerability is exactly why they have evolved. Individuals showing off these risky traits are essentially yelling to females “pick me, I’ve got such good genes that not even these large, bright feathers can stop me!”

Lastly, liars are not common in the animal kingdom because for colonial animals there are no benefits from lying. For example, a bumblebee waggling its body in the wrong direction and lying about where food is, would only result in less food for that individual.

Why then, despite all of this, are examples of dishonesty still found in nature? Mimics are animals which produce the warning colours of poisonous animals, without actually being poisonous themselves. The reason these animals thrive is because they are the minority. It still pays for predators to be wary of these warning colours, because most of the time it will be a poisonous animal.

So animals can talk, in their own way. And while we may need state-of-the-art lie detectors to determine dishonesty, animals have their own mechanisms, with only a few miscreants slipping through the net.

Julia Galbenu graduated from Oxford University with a degree in Biological Sciences. Currently, she's making her way down Latin America with one simple aim: to get people outdoors and make them fall in love with nature. She'll be posting all about her adventures, as well as sneak peeks and excerpts from her book "Find Your Wild" on her instagram @juliagalbenu 

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