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Proc Biol Sci. 2006 May 22;273(1591):1267-71.

The predation costs of symmetrical cryptic coloration.

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School of Biological Sciences, Woodland Road, Bristol BS8 1UG, UK.


In psychological studies of visual perception, symmetry is accepted as a potent cue in visual search for cryptic objects, yet its importance for non-human animals has been assumed rather than tested. Furthermore, while the salience of bilateral symmetry has been established in laboratory-based search tasks using human subjects, its role in more natural settings, closer to those for which such perceptual mechanisms evolved, has not, to our knowledge, been investigated previously. That said, the salience of symmetry in visual search has a plausible adaptive rationale, because biologically important objects, such as prey, predators or conspecifics, usually have a plane of symmetry that is not present in their surroundings. We tested the conspicuousness to avian predators of cryptic artificial, moth-like targets, with or without bilateral symmetry in background-matching coloration, against oak trees in the field. In two independent experiments, symmetrical targets were predated at a higher rate than otherwise identical asymmetrical targets. There was a small, but significant, fitness cost to symmetry in camouflage patterns. Given that birds are the most commonly invoked predators shaping the evolution of defensive coloration in insects, this raises the question of why bilateral asymmetry is not more common in cryptic insects.

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