Aposematism and crypsis combined as a result of distance dependence: functional versatility of the colour pattern in the swallowtail butterfly larva

Proc Biol Sci. 2005 Jul 7;272(1570):1315-21. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2005.3079.


The idea that an aposematic prey combines crypsis at a distance with conspicuousness close up was tested in an experiment using human subjects. We estimated detectability of the aposematic larva of the swallowtail butterfly, Papilio machaon, in two habitats, by presenting, on a touch screen, photographs taken at four different distances and measuring the time elapsed to discovery. The detectability of larvae in these images was compared with images that were manipulated, using existing colours either to increase or decrease conspicuousness. Detection time increased with distance for all colourations. However, at the closest distance, detection time was longer for the larvae manipulated to be more cryptic than for the natural and more conspicuous forms. This indicates that the natural colouration is not maximally cryptic at a short distance. Further, smaller increments in distance were needed to increase detection time for the natural than for the conspicuous larva. This indicates that the natural colouration is not maximally conspicuous at longer distances. Taken together, we present the first empirical support for the idea that some colour patterns may combine warning colouration at a close range with crypsis at a longer range. The implications of this result for the evolution of aposematism are discussed.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Biological*
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Butterflies / physiology*
  • Environment*
  • Humans
  • Larva / physiology
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology*
  • Photography
  • Pigmentation / physiology*
  • Sweden
  • Time Factors