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Evolution. 2011 Jun;65(6):1637-49. doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2011.01257.x. Epub 2011 Mar 11.

Inversely related aposematic traits: reduced conspicuousness evolves with increased toxicity in a polymorphic poison-dart frog.

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  • 1Center for Population Biology and Department of Evolution and Ecology, 1 Shields Avenue, University of California, Davis, California 95616, USA.


Prevailing theory contends that aposematic coloration evolves in tandem with toxicity so that the evolution of increased toxicity will accompany the evolution of greater conspicuousness. Although variation in aposematic coloration within single species should be selectively constrained, because individuals varying from a predator-recognized warning signal will incur greater risk of predation, several species of poison-dart frogs display remarkable phenotypic variation. This variation may have evolved to match different levels of toxicity, and these species provide excellent opportunities to examine the evolution of aposematic coloration. Here, I test whether increased conspicuousness in the granular poison-dart frog evolved in tandem with increased toxicity. Contrary to classical predictions, toxicity assays, spectral reflectance measurements, and phylogenetic reconstruction reveal that the less conspicuous color morphs are actually significantly more toxic than the brightest, most conspicuous phenotypes and that the more toxic, less-conspicuous form evolved from a less toxic, more conspicuous ancestor. Through gas chromatography--mass spectrometry analysis of toxin profiles, I traced the increase in toxicity in the less-conspicuous populations to an acquisition of specific alkaloids, some of which are proven convulsants. These results challenge the tenet that increased conspicuousness always evolves with increased toxicity and support the idea that once aposematism has been established in a species, phenotypic variation may evolve from brightness and toxicity becoming decoupled.

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