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The bright colours of this granular poison frog serve as a warning to predators of its noxious taste.

Aposematism (from Greek ἀπό apo away, σ̑ημα sema sign, coined by Edward Bagnall Poulton[1]), perhaps most commonly known in the context of warning coloration, describes a family of antipredator adaptations where a warning signal is associated with the unprofitability of a prey item to potential predators.[2] Aposematism is one form of an "advertising" signal (with many others existing, such as the bright colours of flowers which lure pollinators). The warning signal may take the form of conspicuous colours, sounds, odours[3] or other perceivable characteristics. Aposematic signals are beneficial for both the predator and prey, both of which avoid potential harm.

However, warning signals do not necessarily require that an organism actually possess chemical or physical defences to act as an effective deterrent to predators. Organisms such as the nonvenomous California mountain kingsnake (Lampropeltis zonata), which has yellow, red, and black bands similar to those of the highly venomous Eastern Coral Snake (Micrurus fulvius), have essentially piggybacked on the successful aposematism of the coral snake. This type of mimicry—the evolution of a warning signal by a non-defensive organism that is morphologically similar to a defensive organism—is known as Batesian mimicry. Another type of aposematic mimicry, called Müllerian mimicry, exists in which defensive organisms evolve to resemble one another. For example, there is a species of poison frog (Ranitomeya imitator) which has several morphs throughout its natural geographical range, each of which looks very similar to other species of poison frog which live in that area. It is thought that by mimicking similarly toxic species, the "warning signal" to predators will be stronger, causing them learn more quickly at less of a cost to each of the poison frog species as a whole.

Defence mechanism[edit]

Flamboyant cuttlefish colours warn of toxicity

The function of aposematism is to prevent attack, by warning potential predators that the prey animal has defences such as being unpalatable or poisonous. The easily detected warning is a primary defence mechanism, and the non-visible defences are secondary.[4] Aposematic signals are primarily visual, using bright colours and high-contrast patterns such as stripes. Warning signals are honest indications of noxious prey, because conspicuousness evolves in tandem with noxiousness.[5] Thus, the brighter and more conspicuous the organism, the more toxic it usually is.[5] The most common and effective colours are red, yellow, black and white.[6] These colours provide strong contrast with green foliage, resist changes in shadow and luminescence, have luminescence contrast, are highly chromatic, and provide distance dependent camouflage.[6] Some forms of warning coloration provide this distance dependent camouflage by having an effective pattern and colour combination that do not allow for easy detection by a predator from a distance, but are warning-like from a close proximity, allowing for an advantageous balance between camouflage and aposematism.[7] Warning coloration evolves in response to background, light conditions, and predator vision.[8] Visible signals may be accompanied by odours, sounds or behaviour to provide a multi-modal signal which is more effectively detected by predators.[9]

Hycleus lugens, an aposematically coloured beetle

Unpalatability can be created in a variety of ways. Some insects such as the ladybird or tiger moth contain bitter-tasting chemicals,[10] while the skunk produces a noxious odour, and the poison glands of the poison dart frog, the sting of a velvet ant or neurotoxin in a black widow spider make them dangerous or painful to attack. Tiger moths advertise their unpalatability by either producing ultrasonic noises which warn bats to avoid them,[11] or by warning postures which expose brightly coloured body parts (see Unkenreflex), or exposing eyespots. Velvet ants both have bright colours and produce audible noises when grabbed (via stridulation), which serve to reinforce the warning.[citation needed]


The skunk is an example of mammalian aposematism.

Aposematism is widespread in invertebrates, particularly insects, but less so in vertebrates, being mostly confined to a smaller number of reptile, amphibian, and fish species. Perhaps the most numerous aposematic vertebrates are the poison dart frogs.[12] Some plants, such as Polygonum sagittatum, a species of knotweed, are thought to employ aposematism to warn herbivores of chemical (such as unpalatability) or physical defences (such as prickled leaves or thorns).[citation needed] Many insects, such as cinnabar moth caterpillars, acquire toxic chemicals from their host plants.[13] Sharply contrasting black-and-white skunks and zorillas are examples within mammals. Some brightly coloured birds with contrasting patterns may also be aposematic.[citation needed]


The defence mechanism relies on the memory of the would-be predator; a bird that has once experienced a foul-tasting grasshopper will endeavour to avoid a repetition of the experience. As a consequence, aposematic species are often gregarious. Before the memory of a bad experience attenuates, the predator may have the experience reinforced through repetition. Aposematic organisms often move in a languid fashion, as they have little need for speed and agility. Instead, their morphology is frequently tough and resistant to injury, thereby allowing them to escape once the predator is warned off. Aposematic species do not need to hide or stay still as cryptic organisms do, so aposematic individuals benefit from more freedom in exposed areas and can spend more time foraging, allowing them to find more and better quality food.[14] Aposematic individuals can similarly make use of conspicuous mating displays.[15]

Origins of the theory[edit]

Gregarious nymphs of an aposematic milkweed bug, Lygaeus kalmii

Alfred Russel Wallace, in response to an 1866 letter from Charles Darwin, was the first to suggest that the conspicuous colour schemes of some insects might have evolved through natural selection as a warning to predators. Darwin had proposed that conspicuous colouring could be explained in many species by means of sexual selection, but had realised that this could not explain the bright colouring of some species of caterpillar, since they were not sexually active. Wallace responded with the suggestion that as the contrasting coloured bands of a hornet warned of its defensive sting, so could the bright colours of the caterpillar warn of its unpalatability. He also pointed out that John Jenner Weir had observed that birds in his aviary would not attempt to catch or eat a certain common white moth, and that a white moth at dusk would be as conspicuous as a brightly coloured caterpillar during the day.

After Darwin responded enthusiastically to the suggestion, Wallace made a request at a meeting of the Entomological Society of London for data that could be used to test the hypothesis. In response, John Jenner Weir conducted experiments with caterpillars and birds in his aviary for two years. The results he reported in 1869 provided the first experimental evidence for warning colouration in animals.[16] The term aposematism was introduced by Wallace's friend Edward Bagnall Poulton in The Colours of Animals (1890).[17][18]

Although Wallace is credited with initially conceiving the concept of aposematism, his initial definition was limited to bright coloration being associated with unpleasantness to predators. It was not until nearly twenty years later that Edward Bagnall Poulton expanded upon that definition in his book The Colours of Animals to include any exaggerated trait (including sounds, odors, body shape, etc.) which predators can learn to associate with unpleasantness. In this book, Poulton also coined the term "aposematism," as well as its opposite, "crypsis." Although the bright coloration named in Wallace's initial definition are perhaps the most common form of aposematism, it is Poulton's more broad definition that is used today.


Warning coloration in the crown-of-thorns starfish

Aposematism is paradoxical in evolutionary terms, as it makes individuals conspicuous to predators, so they may be killed and the trait eliminated before predators learn to avoid it. If warning coloration puts the first few individuals at such a strong disadvantage, it would never last in the species long enough to become beneficial.[19] A possible explanation is that predators fear unfamiliar forms (neophobia)[20] long enough for them to become established, but this is likely to be only temporary.[19][20][21] A second possibility is dietary conservatism, in which predators avoid new prey because it is an unknown quantity,[22] a longer-lasting effect than neophobia.[22][23][24] Dietary conservatism has been demonstrated experimentally in some species of birds.[22][24] These two theories go against the original idea that novel, brightly coloured individuals would be more likely to be eaten or attacked by predators.[25] A third possibility is gregariousness, where prey animals cluster tightly enough to enhance the warning signal. If the species was already unpalatable, predators might learn to avoid the cluster, protecting gregarious individuals with the new aposematic trait.[26][27] Gregariousness assists predators to learn to avoid unpalatable, gregarious prey.[28] Aposematism may also be favoured in dense populations even if these are not gregarious.[20][22] A fourth possibility is that a gene for aposematism may be recessive and located on the X chromosome.[29] If so, predators learn to associate the colour with unpalatability from males with the trait, while heterozygous females carry the trait until it becomes common and predators understand the signal.[29] Well-fed predators may also ignore aposematic morphs, preferring other prey species.[19][30] Another possibility is that females may prefer brighter males, so sexual selection could result in aposematic males having higher reproductive success than non-aposematic males if they can survive long enough to mate. Sexual selection has been shown in many cases to be strong enough to allow seemingly maladaptive traits to persist despite other factors working against the trait.[12] Once aposematic individuals reach a certain threshold population due to one of the above theories, the predator learning process would be spread out over a larger number of individuals and therefore is less likely to wipe out the trait for warning coloration completely.[31] If the population of aposematic individuals all originated from the same few individuals the few that are eaten will still benefit from the higher reproductive success of their surviving relatives through kin selection. The individuals being preyed on through the predator learning process would result in a stronger warning signal for their kin, resulting in higher inclusive fitness for the dead or injured individuals because of the increased success of their surviving relatives.[32]


A venomous coral snake
The harmless red milk snake mimics the bright colours of the venomous coral snake.
Further information: Mimicry

Aposematism is a sufficiently successful strategy that other organisms lacking the same secondary defence means may come to mimic the conspicuous markings of their genuinely aposematic counterparts. For example, the Hornet Moth is a mimic of the yellowjacket wasp; it resembles the wasp, but is not capable of stinging. A predator which would thus avoid the wasp would similarly avoid the moth.

This form of mimicry, where the mimic lacks the defensive capabilities of its 'model', is known as Batesian mimicry, after Henry Walter Bates, a British naturalist who studied Amazonian butterflies in the second half of the 19th century. Batesian mimicry finds greatest success when the ratio of 'mimic' to 'mimicked' is low; otherwise, predators learn to recognise the impostors. Batesian mimics are known to adapt their mimicry to match the prevalence of aposematic organisms in their environment.

A second form of mimicry occurs when two organisms share the same antipredation defence and mimic each other, to the benefit of both species. This form of mimicry is known as Müllerian mimicry, after Fritz Müller, a German naturalist who studied the phenomenon in the Amazon in the late 19th century. For example, different species of yellowjacket wasps that occur together are Müllerian mimics; their similar colouring teaches predators that a striped pattern is associated with being stung. Therefore, a predator which has had a negative experience with any such species will likely avoid any that resemble it in the future.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Poulton, Edward Bagnall (1890). The Colours of Animals. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trü bner. p. foldout "The Colours of Animals Classified According to Their Uses", after page 339. 
  2. ^ Santos, Coloma & cannatella (2003).
  3. ^ Eisner & Grant (1981).
  4. ^ Ruxton, G. D.; Sherratt, T. N.; Speed, M. P. (2004). Avoiding Attack: The Evolutionary Ecology of Crypsis, Warning Signals and Mimicry. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-852859-0. 
  5. ^ a b Maan, M. E.; Cummings, M. E. (2012). "Poison frog colors are honest signals of toxicity, particularly for bird predators". American Naturalist 179 (1): E1–E14. JSTOR 663197. 
  6. ^ a b Stevens, M.; Ruxton, G. D. (2012). "Linking the evolution and form of warning coloration in nature". Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences 279: 417–426. doi:10.1098/rspb.2011.1932. 
  7. ^ Tullberg, B. S., Merilaita S., & Wiklund, C."Aposematism and Crypsis Combined as a Result of Distance Dependence: Functional Versatility of the Colour Pattern in the Swallowtail Butterfly Larva". Proceedings: Biological Sciences 272 (1570): 1315–1321. 2005. doi:10.1098/rspb.2005.3079. 
  8. ^ Wang, I. J.; Shaffer, H. B. (2008). "Rapid color evolution in an aposematic species: A phylogenetic analysis of color variation in the strikingly polymorphic strawberry poison-dart frog". Evolution 62 (11): 2742–2759. doi:10.1111/j.1558-5646.2008.00507.x. PMID 18764916. 
  9. ^ MacAuslane, Heather J. Macauslane (2008). "Aposematism". In Capinera. Encyc. Entom. 4. pp. 239–242. 
  10. ^ Hristov, N. I.; Conner, W. E. (2005). "Sound strategy: acoustic aposematism in the bat–tiger moth arms race". Naturwissenschaften 92 (4): 164–169. doi:10.1007/s00114-005-0611-7. PMID 15772807. 
  11. ^ Hristov, & William E. Conner. (2005).
  12. ^ a b Maan, M. E.; Cummings, M. E. (2009). "Sexual dimorphism and directional sexual selection on aposematic signals in a poison frog". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 106: 19072–19077. doi:10.1073/pnas.0903327106. PMC 2776464. PMID 19858491. 
  13. ^ Edmunds, 1974. pp. 199–201.
  14. ^ Speed, M. P.; Brockhurst, M. A.; Ruxton, G. D. (2010). "The dual benefits of aposematism: predator avoidance and enhanced resources collection". Evolution 64 (6): 1622–1633. doi:10.1111/j.1558-5646.2009.00931.x. PMID 20050915. 
  15. ^ Rudh, A.; Rogell, B.; Håstad, O.; Qvarnström, A. (2011). "Rapid population divergence linked with co-variation between coloration and sexual display in strawberry poison frogs". Evolution 65: 1271–1282. doi:10.1111/j.1558-5646.2010.01210.x. 
  16. ^ Slotten The Heretic in Darwin's Court pp. 253-254
  17. ^ Marek, Paul. "Aposematism". Apheloria. Retrieved November 24, 2012. 
  18. ^ Poulton, 1890. pp337-338.
  19. ^ a b c Mappes, Johanna; Marples, Nicola; Endler, John A. (2005). "The complex business of survival by aposematism". Trends in Ecology and Evolution 20 (11): 598–603. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2005.07.011. 
  20. ^ a b c Speed, Michael P. (2001). "Can receiver psychology explain the evolution of aposematism?". Animal Behaviour 61: 205–216. doi:10.1006/anbe.2000.1558. 
  21. ^ Exernova, Alice; Stys, Pavel; Fucikova, Eva; Vesela, Silvie; Svadova, Katerina; Prokopova, Milena; Jarosik, Vojtech; Fuchs, Roman; Landova, Eva (2007). "Avoidance of aposematic prey in European tits (Paridae): learned or innate?". Behavioral Ecology 18 (1): 148–156. doi:10.1093/beheco/arl061. 
  22. ^ a b c d Thomas, R. J.; Marples, N. M.; Cuthill, I. C.; Takahashi, M.; Gibson, E. A. (2003). "Dietary conservatism may facilitate the initial evolution of aposematism". Oikos 101 (3): 548–566. doi:10.1034/j.1600-0706.2003.12061.x. 
  23. ^ Marples, Nicola M.; Kelly, David J.; Thomas, Robert J. (2005). "Perspective: The evolution of warning coloration is not paradoxical". Evolution 59 (5): 933–940. doi:10.1111/j.0014-3820.2005.tb01032.x. PMID 16136793. 
  24. ^ a b Lindstrom, Leena; Altalo, Rauno V.; Lyytinen, Anne; Mappes, Johanna (2001). "Predator experience on cryptic prey affects the survival of conspicuous aposematic prey". Proceedings of the Royal Society 268 (1465): 357–361. doi:10.1098/rspb.2000.1377. 
  25. ^ name=thomas2003>Thomas, R. J.; Marples, N. M.; Cuthill, I. C.; Takahashi, M.; Gibson, E. A. (2003). "Dietary conservatism may facilitate the initial evolution of aposematism". Oikos 101 (3): 548–566. doi:10.1034/j.1600-0706.2003.12061.x. 
  26. ^ Gamberale, Gabriella; Tullberg, Birgitta S. (1998). "Aposematism and gregariousness: the combined effect of group size and coloration on signal repellence". Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences 265 (1399): 889–894. doi:10.1098/rspb.1998.0374. 
  27. ^ Mappes, Johanna; Alatalo, Rauno V. (1996). "Effects of novelty and gregariousness in survival of aposematic prey". Behavioral Ecology 8 (2): 174–177. doi:10.1093/beheco/8.2.174. 
  28. ^ Ruxton, Graeme D.; Sherratt, Thomas N. (2006). "Aggregation, defense, and warning signals: the evolutionary relationship". Proceedings of the Royal Society 273: 2417–2424. doi:10.1098/rspb.2006.3570. 
  29. ^ a b Brodie, Edmund D. III; Agrawal, Anell F. (2001). "Maternal effects and the evolution of aposematic signals". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 58 (14): 7884–7887. doi:10.1073/pnas.141075998. 
  30. ^ Merilaita, Sami; Kaitala, Veijo (2002). "Community structure and the evolution of aposematic coloration". Ecology Letters 5 (4): 495–501. doi:10.1046/j.1461-0248.2002.00362.x. 
  31. ^ Lee, T. J.; Marples, N. M.; Speed, M. P. (2010). "Can dietary conservatism explain the primary evolution of aposematism?". Animal Behaviour 79: 63–74. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.10.004. 
  32. ^ Servedio, M. R. (2000). "The effects of predator learning, forgetting, and recognition errors on the evolution of warning coloration". Evolution 54: 751–763. doi:10.1111/j.0014-3820.2000.tb00077.x. 


Further reading[edit]

  • Ruxton, G. D.; Speed, M. P.; Sherratt, T. N. (2004). Avoiding Attack. The Evolutionary Ecology of Crypsis, Warning Signals and Mimicry. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-852860-4

External links[edit]