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Frequency-dependent taste-rejection by avian predation may select for defence chemical polymorphisms in aposematic prey

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


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Chemically defended insects advertise their unpalatability to avian predators using conspicuous aposematic coloration that predators learn to avoid. Insects utilize a wide variety of different compounds in their defences, and intraspecific variation in defence chemistry is common. We propose that polymorphisms in insect defence chemicals may be beneficial to insects by increasing survival from avian predators. Birds learn to avoid a colour signal faster when individual prey possesses one of two unpalatable chemicals rather than all prey having the same defence chemical. However, for chemical polymorphisms to evolve within a species, there must be benefits that allow rare chemical morphs to increase in frequency. Using domestic chicks as predators and coloured crumbs for prey, we provide evidence that birds taste and reject proportionally more of the individuals with rare defence chemicals than those with common defence chemicals. This indicates that the way in which birds attack and reject prey could enhance the survival of rare chemical morphs and select for chemical polymorphism in aposematic species. This is the first experiment to demonstrate that predators can directly influence the form taken by prey's chemical defences. © 2005 The Royal Society.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Skelhorn J, Rowe C

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Biology Letters

Year: 2005

Volume: 1

Issue: 4

Pages: 500-503

ISSN (print): 1744-9561

ISSN (electronic): 1744-957X

Publisher: The Royal Society Publishing


DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2005.0359


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Funder referenceFunder name
BB/D003245/1Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council