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Oecologia. 2013 Sep;173(1):83-93. doi: 10.1007/s00442-013-2599-6. Epub 2013 Feb 6.

Does avian conspicuous colouration increase or reduce predation risk?

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Department of Functional and Evolutionary Biology, Estación Experimental de Zonas Áridas, Almería, Spain.


Animals often announce their unprofitability to predators through conspicuous coloured signals. Here we tested whether the apparently conspicuous colour designs of the four European Coraciiformes and Upupiformes species may have evolved as aposematic signals, or whether instead they imply a cost in terms of predation risk. Because previous studies suggested that these species are unpalatable, we hypothesized that predators could avoid targeting them based on their colours. An experiment was performed where two artificial models of each bird species were exposed simultaneously to raptor predators, one painted so as to resemble the real colour design of these birds, and the other one painted using cryptic colours. Additionally, we used field data on the black kite's diet to compare the selection of these four species to that of other avian prey. Conspicuous models were attacked in equal or higher proportions than their cryptic counterparts, and the attack rate on the four species increased with their respective degree of contrast against natural backgrounds. The analysis of the predator's diet revealed that the two least attacked species were negatively selected in nature despite their abundance. Both conspicuous and cryptic models of one of the studied species (the hoopoe) received fewer attacks than cryptic models of the other three species, suggesting that predators may avoid this species for characteristics other than colour. Globally, our results suggest that the colour of coraciiforms and upupiforms does not function as an aposematic signal that advises predators of their unprofitability, but also that conspicuous colours may increase predation risk in some species, supporting thus the handicap hypothesis.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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