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, 159 (4), 363-71

Signaling Health Versus Parasites


Signaling Health Versus Parasites

Thomas Getty. Am Nat.


The Hamilton-Zuk hypothesis, that parasite-host coevolution can maintain heritable variation in fitness, has inspired a very successful research program on sexual selection on signals of health. The immunocompetence handicap hypothesis was developed to provide a handicapping mechanism to stabilize the correlation between signals and health. In earlier articles, I showed that handicap signaling is a special case, not a general law that we can rely on to deduce relative costs across signalers of different quality at equilibrium. The essential requirement for reliable signaling is that higher-quality signalers are more efficient; they get greater marginal fitness returns from an incremental increase in the signal. This does not undermine the Hamilton-Zuk hypothesis or the immunocompetence mechanism, but it does raise doubts about a widespread assumption that is commonly used to test these hypotheses: that sexual selection on signals of health implies the choice of mates with the fewest parasites. Immunity and parasites might play a fundamental role in many biological signaling systems, but viability-indicating traits are not necessarily parasite-load-indicating traits. Theory allows for the possibility that high-quality big signalers have greater health and more parasites than low-quality small signalers (and the data suggest that in many systems they do). This means that we cannot test the Hamilton-Zuk hypothesis or the immunocompetence handicap hypothesis by counting parasites. More generally, we cannot understand sexual selection on signals of health by focusing on the viability costs of signals.

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