Pheromonal control: reconciling physiological mechanism with signalling theory

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Abstract

Pheromones are intraspecific chemical signals. They can have profound effects on the behaviour and/or physiology of the receiver, and it is still common to hear pheromones described as controlling of the behaviour of the receiver. The discussion of pheromonal control arose initially from a close association between hormones and pheromones in the comparative physiological literature, but the concept of a controlling pheromone is at odds with contemporary signal evolution theory, which predicts that a manipulative pheromonal signal negatively affecting the receiver's fitness should not be stable over evolutionary time. Here we discuss the meaning of pheromonal control, and the ecological circumstances by which it might be supported. We argue that in discussing pheromonal control it is important to differentiate between control applied to the effects of a pheromone on a receiver's physiology (proximate control), and control applied to the effects of a pheromone on a receiver's fitness (ultimate control). Critically, a pheromone signal affecting change in the receiver's behaviour or physiology need not necessarily manipulate the fitness of a receiver. In cases where pheromonal signalling does lead to a reduction in the fitness of the receiver, the signalling system would be stable if the pheromone were an honest signal of a social environment that disadvantages the receiver, and the physiological and behavioural changes observed in the receiver were an adaptive response to the new social circumstances communicated by the pheromone.

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