Novelty effects in a multimodal warning signal

Anim Behav. 1999 Feb;57(2):341-346. doi: 10.1006/anbe.1998.0974.


The warning signals of toxic insects are often 'multimodal', combining bright coloration with sounds or odours (or both). Pyrazine (a common insect warning odour) can elicit an intrinsic avoidance in domestic chicks Gallus gallus domesticus, both against novel coloured food, and also against food colours that are specifically associated with aposematism, namely yellow and red. In three experiments, we investigated the role of novelty in this innate bias against yellow coloured food in the presence of pyrazine. Naive chicks were familiarized either to pyrazine odour or to coloured food before being tested for a bias against yellow (warningly coloured) food as opposed to green (nonwarningly coloured) food. In experiment 1, pyrazine novelty was shown to be vital for eliciting a bias against yellow food. However, experiment 2 suggested that colour novelty was not important: chicks familiarized with coloured crumbs still avoided yellow crumbs when pyrazine was presented. In a third experiment that gave chicks an even greater degree of pre-exposure to coloured crumbs, the bias against yellow food eventually waned, although pyrazine continued to elicit an aversion to yellow even after birds had had experience of up to 24 palatable yellow crumbs. Pyrazine novelty has been an important pressure in the evolution of multimodal warning signals, and can continue to promote the avoidance of warningly coloured food, even when it is relatively familiar. The implications for warning signals are discussed. Copyright 1999 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.