Complex signal function: Developing a framework of testable hypotheses

Eileen A. Hebets, Daniel R. Papaj

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

762 Scopus citations


The basic building blocks of communication are signals, assembled in various sequences and combinations, and used in virtually all inter- and intra-specific interactions. While signal evolution has long been a focus of study, there has been a recent resurgence of interest and research in the complexity of animal displays. Much past research on signal evolution has focused on sensory specialists, or on single signals in isolation, but many animal displays involve complex signaling, or the combination of more than one signal or related component, often serially and overlapping, frequently across multiple sensory modalities. Here, we build a framework of functional hypotheses of complex signal evolution based on content-driven (ultimate) and efficacy-driven (proximate) selection pressures (sensu Guilford and Dawkins 1991). We point out key predictions for various hypotheses and discuss different approaches to uncovering complex signal function. We also differentiate a category of hypotheses based on inter-signal interactions. Throughout our review, we hope to make three points: (1) a complex signal is a functional unit upon which selection can act, (2) both content and efficacy-driven selection pressures must be considered when studying the evolution of complex signaling, and (3) individual signals or components do not necessarily contribute to complex signal function independently, but may interact in a functional way.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)197-214
Number of pages18
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jan 2005


  • Communication
  • Multicomponent signal
  • Multimodal signal
  • Signal design
  • Signal interactions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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