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Taste-rejection by predators and the evolution of unpalatability in prey

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


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Aposematic species advertise their unpalatability to potential predators using conspicuous warning colouration. The initial evolution of aposematism is thought to occur by warningly coloured mutants emerging in an already unpalatable cryptic species. However, possessing defence chemicals is often costly, and it is difficult to understand what the selective benefits might be for a mutation causing its bearer to be defended in a population of otherwise palatable cryptic prey. One solution to this problem is that chemically defended individuals are tasted and rejected by predators, and are, therefore, more likely to survive predatory attacks than undefended individuals. Using naïve domestic chicks Gallus gallus domesticus as predators and cryptic green chick crumbs as prey, we asked whether the accuracy with which birds discriminated between palatable and unpalatable prey was affected by the palatability of the unpalatable prey (moderately or highly defended), or their frequency in the population (10 or 25%). Birds could discriminate between green prey on the basis of their defences, and showed better discrimination between palatable and unpalatable prey when defended crumbs were highly unpalatable, compared to when they were moderately unpalatable. Although there was no detectable effect of the frequency of unpalatable prey in the population on predator taste-rejection behaviour in our main analysis, frequency did appear to affect the strategies that birds used in their foraging decisions when prey were only moderately unpalatable. How birds used taste to reject prey also suggests that birds may be able to monitor and regulate their chemical intake according to the frequency and defence levels of the unpalatable prey. Taken together, these results show that avian predators can generate selection for unpalatability in cryptic prey by sampling and taste-rejecting prey, but that a relatively large chemical difference between palatable and unpalatable prey may be necessary before unpalatable prey can enjoy a selective advantage. The exact nature of this evolutionary dynamic will depend on other environmental factors, such as defence costs and prey availability, but it provides a mechanism by which defences can evolve in a cryptic population. © Springer-Verlag 2006.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Skelhorn J, Rowe C

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

Year: 2006

Volume: 60

Issue: 4

Pages: 550-555

ISSN (print): 0340-5443

ISSN (electronic): 1432-0762

Publisher: Springer


DOI: 10.1007/s00265-006-0199-8


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