The coevolution of warning signals

Proc Biol Sci. 2002 Apr 7;269(1492):741-6. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2001.1944.


It has long been recognized that defended prey tend to be conspicuous. Current theories suggest that the association ('aposematism') has arisen because predators more readily learn to avoid attacking defended phenotypes when they are conspicuous. In this paper, I consider why such psychology has evolved. In particular, I argue that aposematism may have evolved not because of an independent and pre-existing receiver bias, but because the conspicuousness of a prey item provides a reliable indicator of its likelihood of being defended. To develop my case I consider how warning signals might coevolve in a system containing a number of predators, whose foraging behaviour is also subject to selection. In these cases, models readily show that the greater the conspicuousness of a novel prey item, the more likely that it has been encountered by other predators and survived. As a consequence, naive predators should be less likely to attack highly conspicuous novel prey on encounter, or at least more inclined to attack them cautiously. This adaptive predator behaviour will greatly facilitate the spread of aposematic phenotypes from extreme rarity, which in turn will enhance selection for forms of predator behaviour under which aposematism will coevolve even more readily.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Models, Psychological
  • Phenotype
  • Predatory Behavior / physiology*