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Predators' Toxin Burdens Influence Their Strategic Decisions to Eat Toxic Prey

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


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Toxic prey advertise their unprofitability to predators via conspicuous aposematic coloration [1]. It is widely accepted that avoidance learning by naive predators is fundamental in generating selection for aposematism [2, 3] and mimicry [4, 5] (where species share the same aposematic coloration), and consequently this cognitive process underpins current evolutionary theory [5, 6]. However, this is an oversimplistic view of predator cognition and decision making. We show that predators that have learned to avoid chemically defended prey continue to attack defended individuals at levels determined by their current toxin burden. European starlings learned to discriminate between sequentially presented defended and undefended mealworms with different color signals. Once birds had learned to avoid the defended prey at a stable asymptotic level, we experimentally increased their toxin burdens, which reduced the number of defended prey that they ingested in the subsequent trial. This was due to the birds making strategic decisions to ingest defended prey on the basis of their visual signals. Birds are clearly able to learn about the nutritional benefits and defensive costs of eating defended prey, and they regulate their intake according to their current physiological state. This raises new perspectives on the evolution of aposematism, mimicry, and defense chemistry. © 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Skelhorn J, Rowe C

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Current Biology

Year: 2007

Volume: 17

Issue: 17

Pages: 1479-1483

ISSN (print): 0960-9822

ISSN (electronic): 1879-0445

Publisher: Cell Press


DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2007.07.064

PubMed id: 17716896


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