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Am Nat. 2003 Oct;162(4):377-89. Epub 2003 Oct 16.

The evolution of warning signals as reliable indicators of prey defense.

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  • 1Department of Biology, Carleton University, 1125 Colonel By Drive, Ottawa, Ontario K1S 5B6, Canada.


It is widely argued that defended prey have tended to evolve conspicuous traits because predators more readily learn to avoid defended prey when they are conspicuous. However, a rival theory proposes that defended prey have evolved such characters because it allows them to be distinguished from undefended prey. Here we investigated how the attributes of defended (unprofitable) and undefended (profitable) computer-generated prey species tended to evolve when they were subject to selection by foraging humans. When cryptic forms of defended and undefended species were similar in appearance but their conspicuous forms were not, defended prey became conspicuous while undefended prey remained cryptic. Indeed, in all of our experiments, defended prey invariably evolved any trait that enabled them to be distinguished from undefended prey, even if such traits were cryptic. When conspicuous mutants of defended prey were extremely rare, they frequently overcame their initial disadvantage by chance. When Batesian mimicry of defended species was possible, defended prey evolved unique traits or characteristics that would make undefended prey vulnerable. Overall, our work supports the contention that warning signals are selected for their reliability as indicators of defense rather than to capitalize on any inherent educational biases of predators.

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