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Decoration supplementation and male–male competition in the great bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus nuchalis): a test of the social control hypothesis


Many animals use signals to communicate their social status to conspecifics, and the social control hypothesis suggests that social interactions maintain the evolutionary stability of status signals: low-quality individuals signal at a low level to prevent high-quality individuals from “punishing” them. I examined whether the numbers of decorations at bowers are socially controlled in the great bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus nuchalis). In two populations, I supplemented males with decorations to determine whether they (a) rejected supplemental decorations and (b) experienced increased bower destruction from rivals. In contrast to the social control hypothesis, males in both populations accepted most supplemental decorations. Though the mean destruction rate did not increase during supplementation in either population, one of the study populations (Townsville) exhibited a negative correlation between the numbers of decorations naturally displayed at bowers and the change in destruction rate during the experiment. Townsville males that naturally had few decorations at their bowers also had more decorations stolen by other males during supplementation than males that naturally had many decorations. These results suggest that the numbers of decorations at bowers are an honest signal of the male's ability to defend his display site from rivals in at least one population of the great bowerbird (Townsville), but they do not support the social control hypothesis because males at both sites failed to limit signal expression. I discuss how the external nature of bower decorations and their availability in the environment may influence the costs and benefits of decoration theft and social control.

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