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Keywords:

  • Communication;
  • cost of signaling;
  • handicap principle;
  • signaling;
  • signal honesty

Many models of honest signaling, based on Zahavi's handicap principle, predict that if receivers are interested in a quality that shows continuous variation across the population of signalers, then the distribution of signal intensities will also be continuous. However, it has previously been noted that this prediction does not agree with empirical observation in many signaling systems, where signals are limited to a small number of levels despite continuous variation in the trait being signaled. Typically, there is a critical value of the trait, with all individuals with trait values on one side of the threshold using the same cheap signal, and all those with trait values on the other side of the threshold using the same expensive signal. It has already been demonstrated that these classical models naturally predict such “all-or-nothing signaling” if it is additionally assumed that receivers suffer from perceptual error in evaluating signal strength. We show that such all-or-nothing signaling is also predicted if receivers are limited to responding to the signals in one of two ways. We suggest that many ecological situations (such as the decision to attack the signaler or not, or mate with the signaler or not) involve such binary choices.