Lizard calls convey honest information on body size and bite performance: a role in predator deterrence?

  • Simon BaeckensEmail author
  • Diego Llusia
  • Roberto García-Roa
  • José Martín
Original Article


When encountering predators, prey animals often signal their ability to fight or flee to discourage the predator from an attack or pursuit. A key requirement for evolutionary stability of these predator-deterrent signals is that they convey honest information on the prey’s fighting or fleeing performance. In this study, we investigate the enigmatic ‘distress call’ of the lacertid lizard Psammodromus algirus, and test whether it conveys reliable information on an individual’s body size, and bite and sprint performance. Our acoustic analyses revealed a complex spectral structure in the vocalization of P. algirus, showing a wide frequency bandwidth, multiple harmonics, and a marked frequency modulation. This spectral design may allow such calls to be perceived by multiple potential predators, as it was assessed by a literature search comparing the call frequency range with the hearing ranges of P. algirus’ top predators. In addition, we found considerable inter-individual variation in the call design of lizards (‘call signatures’), which was linked with inter-individual variation in body size and maximum bite force, but not with sprint speed (a proxy of escape performance). As a whole, our study supports the hypothesis that the vocalizations of P. algirus lizards have the potential to serve as honest calls to deter predators. Further research on the behavioural response of predators towards lizard calls is essential in order to unravel the true predator deterrence potential of these calls.

Significance statement

When eye-to-eye with a predator, prey animals may signal their ability to fight or flee to convince the predator not to attack or pursue them. Reptiles typically use visual displays to deter predators, but fascinatingly, Psammodromus algirus lizards have been observed to vocalize when encountered by predators. Here, we explored the acoustic properties of these calls and examined whether they convey honest information on a lizard’s fighting and fleeing performance. Our recordings indicate that the acoustic profile of the calls fall within the hearing sensitivity of the lizard’s top predators. Moreover, our experiments show a significant link between the acoustic profile of lizard calls and lizard fighting ability, but not with fleeing ability. Together, our results imply that these lizard calls have predator deterrence potential. Additionally, this study provides the first evidence of honest acoustic signalling of performance in a reptile.


Bioacoustics Bite force Honest signalling Psammodromus algirus Sprint speed Vocalizations 



We thank the ‘El Ventorrillo’ (MNCN, CSIC) field station for the use of their facility and logistical support, Rafael Márquez for providing the recording equipment, and two reviewers for their constructive feedback on a previous draft of the manuscript. Lastly, SB thanks Raoul Van Damme and Jan Scholliers for their help in setting up the lizard racetrack.

Authors’ contributions

SB, DL, and RG-R conceived and designed the study; SB and DL conducted statistical analyses; SB prepared figures, and drafted and revised the manuscript; all authors aided in collecting data and interpreting the results; all authors contributed to editing the final paper.


SB is a postdoctoral fellow of the FWO-Flanders (12I8819N), and benefited from a University of Antwerp Young Scientist Grant (OJO2015/4/009). DL is a postdoctoral fellow that benefit from an Atracción de Talento Investigador Grant (2016-T2/AMB-1722) funded by the Comunidad de Madrid (CAM, Spain). Legal authorization and support for the study were provided by the Organismo Autonomo de Parques Nacionales (Spain), with additional financial support from the Ministerio de Economía e Innovación research projects CGL2011-24150/BOS and CGL2014-53523-P.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All applicable international, national, and institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. After completion of the experiments, animals were returned in good health at the exact site of capture. The study was performed under license (permit number: 10/056780.9/16) from the Environmental Agency of Madrid Government (‘Consejería de Medio Ambiente de la Comunidad de Madrid’, Spain), and in accordance with the national animal welfare standards and protocols supervised by the Bioethical Committee of the Spanish Research Council (CSIC).

Supplementary material

265_2019_2695_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (126 kb)
ESM 1 (PDF 125 kb)


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Laboratory of Functional Morphology, Department of BiologyUniversity of AntwerpWilrijkBelgium
  2. 2.Terrestrial Ecology Group, Departamento de EcologíaUniversidad Autónoma de MadridMadridSpain
  3. 3.Centro de Investigación en Biodiversidad y Cambio Global (CIBC-UAM)Universidad Autónoma de MadridMadridSpain
  4. 4.Ethology Lab, Cavanilles Institute of Biodiversity and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of ValenciaValenciaSpain
  5. 5.Departamento de Ecología EvolutivaMuseo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, CSICMadridSpain

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