Is sociality required for the evolution of communicative complexity? Evidence weighed against alternative hypotheses in diverse taxonomic groups.
Complex social communication is expected to evolve whenever animals engage in many and varied social interactions; that is, sociality should promote communicative complexity. Yet, informal comparisons among phylogenetically independent taxonomic groups seem to cast doubt on the putative role of social factors in the evolution of complex communication. Here, we provide a formal test of the sociality hypothesis alongside alternative explanations for the evolution of communicative complexity. We compiled data documenting variations in signal complexity among closely related species for several case study groups--ants, frogs, lizards and birds--and used new phylogenetic methods to investigate the factors underlying communication evolution. Social factors were only implicated in the evolution of complex visual signals in lizards. Ecology, and to some degree allometry, were most likely explanations for complexity in the vocal signals of frogs (ecology) and birds (ecology and allometry). There was some evidence for adaptive evolution in the pheromone complexity of ants, although no compelling selection pressure was identified. For most taxa, phylogenetic null models were consistently ranked above adaptive models and, for some taxa, signal complexity seems to have accumulated in species via incremental or random changes over long periods of evolutionary time. Becoming social presumably leads to the origin of social communication in animals, but its subsequent influence on the trajectory of signal evolution has been neither clear-cut nor general among taxonomic groups.