Behavioral ecology, endocrinology and signal reliability of electric communication

J Exp Biol. 2013 Jul 1;216(Pt 13):2403-11. doi: 10.1242/jeb.082255.


The balance between the costs and benefits of conspicuous animal communication signals ensures that signal expression relates to the quality of the bearer. Signal plasticity enables males to enhance conspicuous signals to impress mates and competitors and to reduce signal expression to lower energetic and predation-related signaling costs when competition is low. While signal plasticity may benefit the signaler, it can compromise the reliability of the information conveyed by the signals. In this paper we review the effect of signal plasticity on the reliability of the electrocommunication signal of the gymnotiform fish Brachyhypopomus gauderio. We (1) summarize the endocrine regulation of signal plasticity, (2) explore the regulation of signal plasticity in females, (3) examine the information conveyed by the signal, (4) show how that information changes when the signal changes, and (5) consider the energetic strategies used to sustain expensive signaling. The electric organ discharge (EOD) of B. gauderio changes in response to social environment on two time scales. Two hormone classes, melanocortins and androgens, underlie the short-term and long-term modulation of signal amplitude and duration observed during social interaction. Population density drives signal amplitude enhancement, unexpectedly improving the reliability with which the signal predicts the signaler's size. The signal's second phase elongation predicts androgen levels and male reproductive condition. Males sustain signal enhancement with dietary intake, but when food is limited, they 'go for broke' and put extra energy into electric signals. Cortisol diminishes EOD parameters, but energy-limited males offset cortisol effects by boosting androgen levels. While physiological constraints are sufficient to maintain signal amplitude reliability, phenotypic integration and signaling costs maintain reliability of signal duration, consistent with theory of honest signaling.

Keywords: androgen; animal communication; cortisol; electric fish; melanocortin; signal plasticity; signal reliability.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Androgens / metabolism
  • Animal Communication*
  • Animals
  • Electric Organ / physiology
  • Energy Metabolism
  • Female
  • Gymnotiformes / physiology*
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism
  • Male
  • Melanocortins / metabolism
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal


  • Androgens
  • Melanocortins
  • Hydrocortisone