Although private communication is considered an important diversifying force in evolution, there is little direct behavioural evidence to support this notion. Here, we show that ultraviolet (UV) signalling in northern swordtails (Xiphophorus) affords a channel for communication that is not accessible to their major predator, Astyanax mexicanus, the Mexican tetra. Laboratory and field behavioural experiments with swordtails (X. nigrensis) and predators (A. mexicanus) demonstrate that male UV ornamentation significantly increases their attractiveness to females but not to this predator, which is less sensitive to UV. UV reflectance among swordtail species correlates positively with tetra densities across habitats, and visual contrast estimates suggest that UV signals are highly conspicuous to swordtails in their natural environment. Cross–species comparisons also support the hypothesis that natural selection drives the use of UV communication. We compared two species, one with high (X. nigrensis) and one with low (X. malinche) Mexican tetra densities. Xiphophorus nigrensis males reflect significantly more UV than X. malinche, exhibit significant UV sexual dimorphism, and UV is a salient component of the sexual communication system. In X. malinche, however, males reflect minimally in the UV, there is no UV sexual dimorphism, and UV does not play a part in its communication system.