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Experience overrides colour in lizard contests

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We examined the role of conspicuous coloration in male-male contests for two species of Australian dragon lizards, Ctenophorus decresii and C. vadnappa, in which conspicuous coloration has a demonstrated predation cost. We conducted contests in which the overall conspicuousness of male coloration was manipulated using paints that matched the spectral reflectance of the lizards, as well as natural (control) contests. There was little evidence for an influence of colour on contest outcome or aggression levels for either species when all experiments were considered. However, we found a significant effect of trial order and experience on contest outcome and aggression levels (the same pair of males was used for both types of contest), despite a 2-3 week interval between contests. When we examined only the first trial between unfamiliar males, we found that male C. vadnappa that had been painted to appear more conspicuous consistently won. Comparison with the natural trials suggests that the aspect of colour manipulation that was responsible for this result was the 'hue' of the throat: males with yellower throats consistently beat males with bluer throats in both natural and painted trials. The difference in coloration of flank markings also predicted the difference in aggression scores between contestants in the natural trials. These results suggest that although colour is important in opponent assessment and in determining contest outcome in C. vadnappa, previous agonistic experience can override the effects of colour and have a long-lasting influence on aggressive behaviour.


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