The handicap principle suggests that individuals of superior quality can more easily bear the cost of developing extravagant ornaments. Consequently, ornament size should provide reliable information about quality or condition. Previous models have largely ignored the process of ornament growth, focusing only on final ornament size. We model ornament growth schedules for individuals of different qualities, where higher quality individuals experience lower costs of carrying energy reserves of a given size, but where all individuals pay a net cost of carrying ornaments of a given size. If the costs of ornament production ensure that final ornament size reliably signals quality, the information conveyed by the signal can change dramatically during growth. Higher quality individuals should delay growth until closer to breeding. Taking a snapshot of partially developed ornaments prior to breeding would show them to be larger in poorer quality individuals. The claim that costly ornaments honestly signal quality thus needs to be understood in a dynamic context, and may only hold during some phases of growth.
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Rose publication type: Article
Sponsorship: This work was funded by a Leverhulme Trust research grant to MRE and RAJ