Many animals use signals to assess the fighting ability of rivals and reduce the cost of aggressive competition. However, little is known about how an individual's own quality influences their signal assessment decisions. Polistes dominulus wasps have visual signals of fighting ability that provide a good model for testing the dynamics of rival choice. We found that rival assessment behaviour was influenced by the advertised quality of the individual, their rivals, and the interaction between individual and rival quality. Individuals of high advertised quality were more likely to challenge rivals and individuals of low advertised quality were more likely to be challenged. However, when choosing among two rivals with different advertised quality, individuals did not simply choose the lower quality rival. Instead, they only preferred the lower quality rival when there was a small difference between their own advertised quality and that of their rivals. Individuals were not choosy when both rivals advertised relatively high or relatively low quality. Therefore, although P. dominulus facial patterns function as conventional signals of fighting ability that provide valuable information about their bearer's behavioural strategy, there is substantial variation in signal responses based on the relative intensity of the senders' and receivers' signals.
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