The role of familiarity in signaller-receiver interactions

Wei Ji Ma, James P. Higham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In animal communication, individuals of species exhibiting individual recognition of conspecifics with whom they have repeated interactions, receive signals not only from unfamiliar conspecifics, but also from individuals with whom they have prior experience. Empirical evidence suggests that familiarity with a specific signaller aids receivers in interpreting that signaller's signals, but there has been little theoretical work on this effect. Here, we develop a Bayesian decision-making model and apply it to the well-studied systems of primate ovulation signals. We compare the siring probability of learner males versus non-learner males, based on variation in their assessment of the best time to mate and mate-guard females. We compare males of different dominance ranks, and vary the number of females, and their cycle synchrony. We find strong fitness advantages for learners, which manifest very quickly. Receivers do not have to see the full range of a signaller's signals in order to start gaining familiarity benefits. Reproductive asynchrony and increasing the number of females both enhance learning advantages. We provide theoretical evidence for a strong advantage to specific learning of a signaller's range of signals in signalling systems. Our results have broad implications, not only for understanding communication, but in elucidating additional fitness benefits to group-living, the evolution of individual recognition, and other characteristics of animal behavioural biology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20180568
JournalJournal of the Royal Society Interface
Issue number149
StatePublished - Dec 1 2018


  • familiarity
  • fertility signalling
  • learning
  • repeated interactions
  • signalling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Biophysics
  • Bioengineering
  • Biomaterials
  • Biochemistry
  • Biomedical Engineering


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