Hermit crabs, Pagurus bernhardus, sometimes exchange shells after a period of shell rapping, when the initiating or attacking crab brings its shell rapidly and repeatedly into contact with the shell of the noninitiator or defender in a series of bouts. Bouts are separated by pauses, and raps within bouts are separated by very short periods called 'gaps'. Since within-contest variation is missed when signals are studied by averaging performance rates over entire contests, we analysed the fine within-bout structure of this repeated, aggressive signal. We found that the pattern is consistent with high levels of fatigue in initiators. The duration of the gaps between individual raps increased both within bouts and from bout to bout, and we conclude that this activity is costly to perform. Furthermore, long pauses between bouts is correlated with increased vigour of rapping in the subsequent bout, which suggests that the pause allows for recovery from fatigue induced by rapping. These between-bout pauses may be assessed by noninitiators and provide a signal of stamina. Copyright 2000 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.