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Birds learn to use distastefulness as a signal of toxicity

Lookup NU author(s): Dr John Skelhorn, Professor Candy Rowe


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Aposematic prey advertise their toxicity using conspicuous visual signals that predators quickly learn to avoid. However, it is advantageous for predators not to simply avoid toxic prey, but to learn about the amount of toxin that prey contain, and include them in their diets when the nutritional gains are high relative to the costs of ingesting the toxin. Therefore, when foraging on a defended prey population where individuals vary in their toxin concentration, predators should learn to use cues which distinguish prey with different levels of toxicity in order to include less defended individuals in their diets. In this experiment, we found that European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) could learn to use a bitter taste to predict the amount of toxin that individual prey contained, and use that information to preferentially ingest less toxic prey to maximize their nutrient intake relative to the amount of toxin ingested. Our results suggest that bitter tastes could evolve as reliable signals of toxicity, and can help to explain why many toxins taste bitter. They also highlight the need to develop new mathematical simulations of the evolution of prey defences which incorporate the adaptive decision-making processes underlying nutrient and toxin management.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Skelhorn J, Rowe C

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

Year: 2010

Volume: 277

Issue: 1688

Pages: 1729-1734

Print publication date: 03/02/2010

ISSN (print): 0962-8452

ISSN (electronic): 1471-2954

Publisher: The Royal Society Publishing


DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2009.2092


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Funder referenceFunder name
Lloyds Tercentenary Foundation Fellowship
BB/D003245/1BBSRC Research