Evolutionary Ecology

, Volume 27, Issue 6, pp 1045–1068 | Cite as

Eavesdropping on visual secrets

  • Nicholas C. Brandley
  • Daniel I. Speiser
  • Sönke Johnsen
Review Article


Private communication may benefit signalers by reducing the costs imposed by potential eavesdroppers such as parasites, predators, prey, or rivals. It is likely that private communication channels are influenced by the evolution of signalers, intended receivers, and potential eavesdroppers, but most studies only examine how private communication benefits signalers. Here, we address this shortcoming by examining visual private communication from a potential eavesdropper’s perspective. Specifically, we ask if a signaler would face fitness consequences if a potential eavesdropper could detect its signal more clearly. By integrating studies on private communication with those on the evolution of vision, we suggest that published studies find few taxon-based constraints that could keep potential eavesdroppers from detecting most hypothesized forms of visual private communication. However, we find that private signals may persist over evolutionary time if the benefits of detecting a particular signal do not outweigh the functional costs a potential eavesdropper would suffer from evolving the ability to detect it. We also suggest that all undetectable signals are not necessarily private signals: potential eavesdroppers may not benefit from detecting a signal if it co-occurs with signals in other more detectable sensory modalities. In future work, we suggest that researchers consider how the evolution of potential eavesdroppers’ sensory systems influences private communication. Specifically, we suggest that examining the fitness correlates and evolution of potential eavesdroppers can help (1) determine the likelihood that private communication channels are stable over evolutionary time, and (2) demonstrate that undetectable signals are private signals by showing that signalers benefit from a reduction in detection by potential eavesdroppers.


Private communication Co-evolution Vision Eavesdropping UV signals 



The authors thank Graeme Ruxton, Martin Stevens, Eric Warrant, and two anonymous reviewers for comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. SJ was supported in part by Grants from the National Science Foundation (OCE-0852138) and the office of Naval Research (N00014-09-1-1053).

Supplementary material

10682_2013_9656_MOESM1_ESM.docx (316 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 317 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nicholas C. Brandley
    • 1
  • Daniel I. Speiser
    • 2
  • Sönke Johnsen
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of BiologyDuke UniversityDurhamUSA
  2. 2.Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine BiologyUniversity of CaliforniaSanta BarbaraUSA

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