Behavioral ecology and sociobiology

Context-dependent evaluation of prospective mates in a fish.

PMID 26097281


Female choice is often assumed to be based on absolute preference, driven by a threshold value of mate attractiveness. However, increasing evidence suggests that females may instead perform a comparative evaluation of prospective mates, possibly incurring in violation of rational decision rules (e.g. independence from irrelevant alternative, IIA). A prototypical case is the 'asymmetrically dominated decoy' effect where the preference for a target option over a competitor is altered by the addition of an irrelevant alternative. Here, we test for this effect in the peacock blenny Salaria pavo. Females, in binary test (i.e. focal option dyad differing in body size and extension of a yellow spot), strongly preferred one of the options. The effect of decoys, asymmetrically dominating the focal options for either yellow spot extension or body size, varied according to the initially preferred trait and the decoy type. Indeed, the addition of a decoy caused a shift in preference only when the decoy exhibited the intermediate expression of the trait less preferred initially. By contrast, females did not modify their preference in the presence of the decoy for their preferred trait. Although females' evaluation was context-dependent, the violation of IIA was clearly observed only with respect to the initially less preferred trait. This does not exclude that females are in any case using comparative decision rules. Indeed, when faced with three alternatives, two of which are proportionally closer to each other than to the third one, they might not be able to discriminate among them, perceiving stimulus absolute magnitude.