Some General Comments on the Evolution and Design of Animal Communication Systems

John A. Endler


Animal communication systems have evolved so that individuals can make decisions based upon the behaviour, physiology or morphology of others. Receiving mechanisms probably evolve to increase the efficiency and reliability of information reception whereas signals probably evolve to increase the efficiency of communication and reliability of manipulation of the receiving individual to the benefit of the emitter. The minimum requirement for clear reception suggests that any study of the evolution and design of communication systems must consider the factors that affect the quality of the received and processed signal. Critical information is needed about how the signal is generated and emitted, how it fares during transmission through air, water or substrate, how it is received and processed by the receiver's sensory and cognitive systems, and the factors which affect the fitness consequences of alternative ways of reacting to the information contained in the signal. These should allow predictions about the kinds and forms of signals used by animals signalling under known conditions. Phylogenetic history, and the geological time a clade spends in different signalling environments, will also affect signal evolution, and hence the success of predictions about signal design. We need to use methods of many different biological fields to understand the design and evolution of signals and signalling systems.