It pays to cheat: tactical deception in a cephalopod social signalling system

Culum Brown*, Martin P. Garwood, Jane E. Williamson

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    69 Citations (Scopus)


    Signals in intraspecific communication should be inherently honest; otherwise the system is prone to collapse. Theory predicts, however, that honest signalling systems are susceptible to invasion by cheats, the extent of which is largely mediated by fear of reprisal. Cuttlefish facultatively change their shape and colour, an ability that evolved to avoid predators and capture prey. Here, we show that this ability is tactically employed by male mourning cuttlefish (Sepia plangon) to mislead conspecifics during courtship in a specific social context amenable to cheating 39 per cent of the time, while it was never employed in other social contexts. Males deceive rival males by displaying male courtship patterns to receptive females on one side of the body, and simultaneously displaying female patterns to a single rival male on the other, thus preventing the rival from disrupting courtship. The use of tactical deception in such a complex communication network indicates that sociality has played a key role in the cognitive evolution of cephalopods.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)729-732
    Number of pages4
    JournalBiology Letters
    Issue number5
    Publication statusPublished - 23 Oct 2012


    • cuttlefish
    • courtship
    • game theory
    • cognition
    • evolution


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