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Anim Behav. 2000 Sep;60(3):269-278.

Warning signals, receiver psychology and predator memory.

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Environmental and Biological Studies, Liverpool Hope University College


This review identifies four receiver psychology perspectives that are likely to be important in the design and evolution of warning signals. Three of these perspectives (phobia, learning and prey recognition) have been studied in detail, and I include a brief review of recent work. The fourth, a memory perspective, has received little attention and is developed here. A memory perspective asks, 'how might warning signals function to reduce forgetting of avoidances between encounters?'. To answer this question I review data from psychology literature that describe important features of animal long-term memory. These data suggest that components of warning signals may function to reduce forgetting (and therefore increase memorability) by (1) preventing forgetting of learnt prey discriminations; (2) jogging the memories of forgetful predators; and (3) biasing forgetting in favour of prey avoidance when the warning signal of a defended aposematic species is copied by an edible Batesian mimic. A combination of a learning and a memory perspective suggests that the features of aposematic prey that accelerate avoidance learning may also be the features that decelerate forgetting processes. If correct, this would have important implications for the comprehension of signal design. Finally, I suggest that the cryptic appearance of an edible prey may decelerate predator learning and accelerate predator forgetting, to the benefit of the prey. In terms of learning and memory, crypsis may be an antisignal.


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