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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Knee-clicks and visual traits indicate fighting ability in eland antelopes: multiple messages and back-up signals

Jakob Bro-Jørgensen1* and Torben Dabelsteen2

Author affiliations

1 Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London, London NW1 4RY, UK and Department of Biological and Environmental Science, University of Jyväskylä, Finland

2 Animal Behaviour Group, Department of Biology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

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Citation and License

BMC Biology 2008, 6:47  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-6-47

Published: 5 November 2008

Abstract

Background

Given the costs of signalling, why do males often advertise their fighting ability to rivals using several signals rather than just one? Multiple signalling theories have developed largely in studies of sexual signals, and less is known about their applicability to intra-sexual communication. We here investigate the evolutionary basis for the intricate agonistic signalling system in eland antelopes, paying particular attention to the evolutionary phenomenon of loud knee-clicking.

Results

A principal components analysis separated seven male traits into three groups. The dominant frequency of the knee-clicking sound honestly indicated body size, a main determinant of fighting ability. In contrast, the dewlap size increased with estimated age rather than body size, suggesting that, by magnifying the silhouette of older bulls disproportionately, the dewlap acts as an indicator of age-related traits such as fighting experience. Facemask darkness, frontal hairbrush size and body greyness aligned with a third underlying variable, presumed to be androgen-related aggression. A longitudinal study provided independent support of these findings.

Conclusion

The results show that the multiple agonistic signals in eland reflect three separate components of fighting ability: (1) body size, (2) age and (3) presumably androgen-related aggression, which is reflected in three backup signals. The study highlights how complex agonistic signalling systems can evolve through the simultaneous action of several selective forces, each of which favours multiple signals. Specifically, loud knee-clicking is discovered to be an honest signal of body size, providing an exceptional example of the potential for non-vocal acoustic communication in mammals.