Abstract: Animal communication systems serve to transfer both motivational information (i.e. the intentions or emotional state of the signaler) and referential information (i.e. information about external objects). Although most animal signals seem to deal primarily with motivational information, those with a substantial referential component are of particular interest. This is because referential signals hint at the ability of animals to communicate about material forms and events, and thus invite comparison with words in human language. Indeed, it remains a hotly debated topic as to whether human language evolved from other animal communication systems for the purpose of communication, or as an independent outcome of selection for enhanced general cognitive abilities (sensu Donaldson et al. 2007). Evidence in support of the first hypothesis would need to cite demonstrations of how symbolic reference, as used by humans, could evolve from functional reference, as observed in other animal communication systems. In this seminar I formalise a cooperative game that captures the general features of the breeding system for a vast number of social hermaphroditic animals, highlighting the fundamental importance of information updating and sex-role commitment in rendering the cooperative strategy evolutionarily stable. I then show, using a reef fish as the empirical model, that the signals used during negotiation and commitment phases of the cooperative sex allocation strategy provide symbolic representations of the theoretical model’s key functional parameters; individual dominance, individual body size, individual sex (i.e. the functional referents) and individual sex role in the future (i.e. the negotiated cooperative solution). Results and implications will be discussed within the context of animal cognition and communication, the evolutionary ecology of sex allocation, and the sensory and population ecology of coral reefs.
Biography: Stefan has broad interests in evolution, ecology, behavior, and comparative psychology. He received his PhD (Biology) in 2010 from James Cook University, and now works as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. Using a combination of mathematical modeling, simulations, and field- and laboratory-based experimentation; his current research focuses on sex allocation, the evolution of behavioural decision rules, and the emergence of sociality.