BACKGROUND: Competition is considered to rely on the value attributed to resources by animals, but the influence of extrinsic stressors on this value remains unexplored. Although natural or anthropogenic environmental stress often drives decreased competition, assumptions that this relies on resource devaluation are without formal evidence. According to theory, physiological or perceptual effects may influence contest behaviour directly, but motivational changes due to resource value are expected to manifest as behavioural adjustments only in interaction with attainment costs and resource benefits. Thus, we hypothesise that stressor-induced resource devaluations will impose greater effects when attainment costs are high, but not when resource benefits are higher. Noise may elicit such effects because it impacts the acoustic environment and imposes physiological and behavioural costs to animals. Therefore, we manipulated the acoustic environment using playbacks of artificial noise to test our hypotheses in the territorial male Siamese fighting fish, Betta splendens.
RESULTS: Compared to a no-playback control, noise reduced defense motivation only when territory owners faced comparatively bigger opponents that impose greater injury costs, but not when territories also contained bubble nests that offer reproductive benefits. In turn, nest-size decreases were noted only after contests under noise treatment, but temporal nest-size changes relied on cross-contest variation in noise and comparative opponent size. Thus, the combined effects of noise are conditional on added attainment costs and offset by exceeding resource benefits.
CONCLUSION: Our findings provide support for the hypothesised modulation of resource value under extrinsic stress and suggest implications for competition under increasing anthropogenic activity.