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J Theor Biol. 2004 May 21;228(2):217-26.

Natural selection on unpalatable species imposed by state-dependent foraging behaviour.

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  • 1Department of Biology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ont., Canada K1S 5B6.


Müllerian mimicry is typically thought to arise as a consequence of defended prey species adopting a similar way of signalling their unprofitability, thereby reducing the costs of predator education. Here we consider subsequent selection on the morphology of prey species, in the potentially lengthy period of time when predators are generally aware of the noxious qualities of their prey (and so no further learning is involved). Using a pair of stochastic dynamic programming equations which describe both the toxin burdens of a predator and its energy level, we identified the optimal state-dependent rules that maximize a predator's long-term survivorship, and examined the implications of this behaviour for the evolution of prey morphologies. When palatable prey are in short supply then those prey species which contain relatively low doses of toxins become profitable to consume by hungry predators. Under these conditions, a weakly defended prey could gain selective advantage in the post educational period by resembling a prey species which contained a higher dose of the same or different toxins, although the precise nature of the ecological relationship between model and mimic could either be mutualistic or parasitic depending on how mimic density increases when favoured by selection. Our work formally demonstrates that one does not always need to invoke educational effects to explain why two or more unpalatable species have evolved a similar appearance, or to explain why mimetic similarity among distasteful species is maintained over time. When two species contain high levels of different toxins then they may gain mutual advantage by resembling one another, not only by educating the predator as to their common unprofitability (classical Müllerian mimicry), but also by increasing predator uncertainty as to the specific kind of toxin a prey item contains.

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