The hunting handicap: Costly signaling in human foraging strategies

R. B. Bird, E. A. Smith, D. W. Bird

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

294 Scopus citations


Humans sometimes forage or distribute the products of foraging in ways that do not maximize individual energetic return rates. As an alternative to hypotheses that rely on reciprocal altruism to counter the costs of inefficiency, we suggest that the cost itself could be recouped through signal benefit. Costly signaling theory predicts that signals can provide fitness benefits when costs are honestly linked to signaler quality, and this information is broadcast to potential mates and competitors. Here, we test some predictions of costly signaling theory against empirical data on human food acquisition and sharing patterns. We show that at least two types of marine foraging, turtle hunting and spearfishing, as practiced among the Meriam (a Melanesian people of Torres Strait, Australia) meet key criteria for costly signaling: signal traits are (1) differentially costly or beneficial in ways that are (2) honestly linked to signaler quality, and (3) designed to effectively broadcast the signal. We conclude that relatively inefficient hunting or sharing choices may be maintained in a population if they serve as costly and reliable signals designed to reveal the signaler's qualities to observers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9-19
Number of pages11
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2001

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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