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Fighting with an unreliable weapon: opponent choice and risk avoidance in fiddler crab contests

Abstract

Current signaling theories predict that animal signals are generally honest, but each signaling system allows some admixture of deception. Male fiddler crabs fight aggressively through use of their greatly enlarged major claw, which grows on the left or right side. Some males have fragile regenerated claws (regenerated males) and others have robust original claws (original males), but crabs cannot visually discriminate between the two types. In the present study, we conducted field observations in a population of Uca lactea to investigate how regenerated males fight with their inferior weapons, and how other males deal with the potential deception. Regenerated males employed bluffing tactics; they pretended to be aggressive to deter opponents, but surrendered when the fight escalated. Regenerated males tended to choose smaller and opposite-handed opponents, probably because claws can be grappled tightly in same-handed fights. The bluffing tactics seemed to be partially successful, because regenerated males were not selectively challenged by other males and defeated original males in 41.7 % of the cases. However, original males developed counter-bluff tactics, such as choosing same-handed opponents and persisting in contests even when the opponent was larger. Consequently, original males defeated regenerated males equipped with longer a claw in 42.9 % of the cases. In the most striking case, an original male evicted a resident male from his burrow despite the 42.7 % longer regenerated claw. This counter-bluff tactic decreases the reliance on the signal of strength (weapon size) and limits the benefit of bluffing.

Significance statement

Male fiddler crab (Uca lactea) fight with their major claw, which grows on either the left or right side. However, males with fragile a regenerated claw (regenerated males) which were similar in size to an original claw made deception in the fights. Regenerated males employed bluffing tactics; they behaved aggressively to deter opponents, but surrendered when the fight escalated. They chose smaller and opposite-handed opponents, because claws can be grappled tightly in same-handed fights. As a result, they defeated males with an original claw (original males) in 41.7 % of the cases. Interestingly, however, original males developed a counter-bluff tactic: they chose same-handed opponents and persisted in contests even when the opponent was larger. Consequently, 42.9 % of original males defeated regenerated males equipped with a larger claw. This counter-bluff tactic serves to “call the bluff” and limit the benefits of bluffing.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Professor S. Kohshima at Kyoto University for critical comments on this study. We also thank Y. Endo and H. Sakuragi at Kyoto University for editing the manuscript’s English. This research was financially supported in part by JSPS Core-to-Core Program, A. Advanced Research Networks “Tropical Biodiversity Conservation” Wildlife Research Center, Kyoto University.

Author information

Correspondence to Daisuke Muramatsu.

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Ethical approval

All procedures performed in this study involving animals were conducted in accordance with the ethical standards of the Guidelines for Animal Studies in the Wild issued by the Wildlife Research Center of Kyoto University. This article does not contain any study with human participants.

Additional information

Communicated by D. Kemp

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Examples of same-handed and opposite-handed fights. Claws can be tightly clamped in same-handed fights, but it appears to be mechanically challenging to interlock claws in opposite-handed fights. (MPG 2104 kb)

Example of a fight involving a regenerated male trying to escape from a claw interlock. (MPG 1930 kb)

Example of a fight in which the largest claw difference (7.35 mm) was observed and the fight was won by the male with the shorter (original) claw. (MPG 2842 kb)

Examples of same-handed and opposite-handed fights. Claws can be tightly clamped in same-handed fights, but it appears to be mechanically challenging to interlock claws in opposite-handed fights. (MPG 2104 kb)

Example of a fight involving a regenerated male trying to escape from a claw interlock. (MPG 1930 kb)

Example of a fight in which the largest claw difference (7.35 mm) was observed and the fight was won by the male with the shorter (original) claw. (MPG 2842 kb)

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Muramatsu, D., Koga, T. Fighting with an unreliable weapon: opponent choice and risk avoidance in fiddler crab contests. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 70, 713–724 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-016-2094-2

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Keywords

  • Contest
  • Claw asymmetry
  • Bluff
  • Dishonesty
  • Weapon
  • Uca