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Physiol Behav. 1994 Dec;56(6):1217-27.

Is the bitter rejection response always adaptive?

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  • 1ARL Division of Neurobiology, University of Arizona, Tucson 85721.


The bitter rejection response consists of a suite of withdrawal reflexes and negative affective responses. It is generally assumed to have evolved as a way to facilitate avoidance of foods that are poisonous because they usually taste bitter to humans. Using previously published studies, the present paper examines the relationship between bitterness and toxicity in mammals, and then assesses the ecological costs and benefits of the bitter rejection response in carnivorous, omnivorous, and herbivorous (grazing and browsing) mammals. If the bitter rejection response accurately predicts the potential toxicity of foods, then one would expect the threshold for the response to be lower for highly toxic compounds than for nontoxic compounds. The data revealed no such relationship. Bitter taste thresholds varied independently of toxicity thresholds, indicating that the bitter rejection response is just as likely to be elicited by a harmless bitter food as it is by a harmful one. Thus, it is not necessarily in an animal's best interest to have an extremely high or low bitter threshold. Based on this observation, it was hypothesized that the adaptiveness of the bitter rejection response depends upon the relative occurrence of bitter and potentially toxic compounds in an animal's diet. Animals with a relatively high occurrence of bitter and potentially toxic compounds in their diet (e.g., browsing herbivores) were predicted to have evolved a high bitter taste threshold and tolerance to dietary poisons. Such an adaptation would be necessary because a browser cannot "afford" to reject all foods that are bitter and potentially toxic without unduly restricting its dietary options. At the other extreme, animals that rarely encounter bitter and potentially toxic compounds in their diet (e.g., carnivores) were predicted to have evolved a low bitter threshold. Carnivores could "afford" to utilize such a stringent rejection mechanism because foods containing bitter and potentially toxic compounds constitute a small portion of their diet. Since the low bitter threshold would reduce substantially the risk of ingesting anything poisonous, carnivores were also expected to have a relatively low tolerance to dietary poisons. This hypothesis was supported by a comparison involving 30 mammal species, in which a suggestive relationship was found between quinine hydrochloride sensitivity and trophic group, with carnivores > omnivores > grazers > browsers. Further support for the hypothesis was provided by a comparison across browsers and grazers in terms of the production of tannin-binding salivary proteins, which probably represent an adaptation for reducing the bitterness and astringency of tannins.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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