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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2001 May 22;98(11):6227-32. Epub 2001 May 15.

The evolution of coloration and toxicity in the poison frog family (Dendrobatidae).

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  • 1Department of Biology, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC 27858, USA.


The poison frogs (family Dendrobatidae) are terrestrial anuran amphibians displaying a wide range of coloration and toxicity. These frogs generally have been considered to be aposematic, but relatively little research has been carried out to test the predictions of this hypothesis. Here we use a comparative approach to test one prediction of the hypothesis of aposematism: that coloration will evolve in tandem with toxicity. Recently, we developed a phylogenetic hypothesis of the evolutionary relationships among representative species of poison frogs, using sequences from three regions of mitochondrial DNA. In our analysis, we use that DNA-based phylogeny and comparative analysis of independent contrasts to investigate the correlation between coloration and toxicity in the poison frog family (Dendrobatidae). Information on the toxicity of different species was obtained from the literature. Two different measures of the brightness and extent of coloration were used. (i) Twenty-four human observers were asked to rank different photos of each different species in the analysis in terms of contrast to a leaf-littered background. (ii) Color photos of each species were scanned into a computer and a computer program was used to obtain a measure of the contrast of the colors of each species relative to a leaf-littered background. Comparative analyses of the results were carried out with two different models of character evolution: gradual change, with branch lengths proportional to the amount of genetic change, and punctuational change, with all change being associated with speciation events. Comparative analysis using either method or model indicated a significant correlation between the evolution of toxicity and coloration across this family. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that coloration in this group is aposematic.

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