Environmental deterioration compromises socially enforced signals of male quality in three-spined sticklebacks.
Social costs are often important in promoting the honesty of sexually selected traits. What happens, then, when social costs are relaxed? In species that breed in shallow coastal waters, increases in the frequency and severity of phytoplankton blooms may undermine the value of visual signals by reducing visibility and, in so doing, lead to dishonest signaling by relaxing the social consequences of high signaling effort for poor-quality individuals. Here, we experimentally test the effects of algally induced water turbidity on the role of male-male competition in facilitating reliable sexual displays in three-spined sticklebacks. We found that males in poor condition reduced their courtship effort in the presence of competition in turbid water. This reduction, however, was to a much lesser extent than that observed in clear water. Thus, courtship under conditions of algal turbidity did not reflect male condition as honestly as courtship in clear water. Algal turbidity also influenced breeding coloration, with males in poor condition reducing their area of red nuptial coloration in turbid conditions. Our findings suggest that anthropogenic disturbance to the signaling environment can potentially reduce the evolutionary potential of sexual selection by diminishing the efficacy of visual displays and weakening socially enforced signals of male quality.