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Concept: Aposematism


Spiders have been suspected to be one of the most important groups of natural enemies of insects worldwide. To document the impact of the global spider community as insect predators, we present estimates of the biomass of annually killed insect prey. Our estimates assessed with two different methods suggest that the annual prey kill of the global spider community is in the range of 400-800 million metric tons (fresh weight), with insects and collembolans composing >90% of the captured prey. This equals approximately 1‰ of the global terrestrial net primary production. Spiders associated with forests and grasslands account for >95% of the annual prey kill of the global spider community, whereas spiders in other habitats are rather insignificant contributors over a full year. The spider communities associated with annual crops contribute less than 2% to the global annual prey kill. This, however, can be partly explained by the fact that annual crop fields are “disturbed habitats” with a low buildup of spider biomass and that agrobiont spiders often only kill prey over short time periods in a year. Our estimates are supported by the published results of exclusion experiments, showing that the number of herbivorous/detritivorous insects and collembolans increased significantly after spider removal from experimental plots. The presented estimates of the global annual prey kill and the relative contribution of spider predation in different biomes improve the general understanding of spider ecology and provide a first assessment of the global impact of this very important predator group.

Concepts: Insect, Arthropod, Predation, Ecology, Lion, Biological pest control, Aposematism, Spider


Tiger moths (Erebidae: Arctiinae) have experienced intense selective pressure from echolocating, insectivorous bats for over 65 million years. One outcome has been the evolution of acoustic signals that advertise the presence of toxins sequestered from the moths' larval host plants, i.e. acoustic aposematism. Little is known about the effectiveness of tiger moth anti-bat sounds in their natural environments. We used multiple infrared cameras to reconstruct bat-moth interactions in three-dimensional (3-D) space to examine how functional sound-producing organs called tymbals affect predation of two chemically defended tiger moth species: Pygarctia roseicapitis (Arctiini) and Cisthene martini (Lithosiini). P. roseicapitis and C. martini with intact tymbals were 1.8 and 1.6 times less likely to be captured by bats relative to those rendered silent. 3-D flight path and acoustic analyses indicated that bats actively avoided capturing sound-producing moths. Clicking behavior differed between the two tiger moth species, with P. roseicapitis responding in an earlier phase of bat attack. Evasive flight behavior in response to bat attacks was markedly different between the two tiger moth species. P. roseicapitis frequently paired evasive dives with aposematic sound production. C. martini were considerably more nonchalant and employed evasion in fewer interactions. Our results show that acoustic aposematism is effective at deterring bat predation in a natural context and that this strategy is likely to be the ancestral function of tymbal organs within the Arctiinae.

Concepts: Insect, Ultrasound, Animal echolocation, Bat, Lepidoptera, Moth, Aposematism, Arctiidae


Abstract Because predation is the main cause of avian nest failure, selection should favor strategies that reduce the probability of nest predation. We describe apparent Batesian mimicry in the morphology and behavior of a Laniocera hypopyrra nestling. On hatching, the nestling had a distinctive bright orange color and modified feathers all over its body, and 6 days after hatching, it started to move its head very slowly from side to side (in a “caterpillar” movement) when disturbed. These traits gave it a resemblance to a hairy, aposematic caterpillar. This species has a long nestling period for its size (20 days), perhaps due to slow provisioning rates (about one feeding per hour). We argue that the slow growth rate, combined with high nest predation, favors the evolution of antipredation mechanisms such as the unique morphological and behavioral characteristics of L. hypopyrra nestlings.

Concepts: Insect, Predation, Bird, Mimicry, Polymorphism, Adaptation, Aposematism, Batesian mimicry


Many animals have bright colours to warn predators that they have defences and are not worth attacking. However, it remains unclear whether the strength of warning colours reliably indicate levels of defence. Few studies have unambiguously established if warning signals are honest, and have rarely considered predator vision or conspicuousness against the background. Importantly, little data exists either on how differences in signal strength translate into survival advantages. Ladybirds exhibit impressive variation in coloration both among and within species. Here we demonstrate that different levels of toxicity exist among and within ladybird species, and that signal contrast against the background is a good predictor of toxicity, showing that the colours are honest signals. Furthermore, field experiments with ladybird models created with regards to predator vision show that models with lower conspicuousness were attacked more frequently. This provides one of the most comprehensive studies on signal honesty in warning coloration to date.

Concepts: Predation, Photoreceptor cell, Vision, Aposematism, Handicap principle, Signalling theory, Signalling, Animal communication


Aposematic (warning) signals of prey help predators to recognize the defended distasteful or poisonous prey that should be avoided. The evolution of aposematism in the context of predation has been in the center of modern ecology for a long time. But, the possible roles of aposematic signals in other ecological contexts have been largely ignored. Here we address the role of aposematic signals in competition between prey and predators. Bumblebees use visual and auditory aposematic signals to warn predators about their defenses. For 2 years, we observed competition for nestboxes between chemically defended insects, Bombus ardens (and possibly also Bombus ignitus), and cavity nesting birds (Parus minor and Poecile varius). Bumblebees settled in 16 and 9 % of nestboxes (in 2010 and 2011 breeding seasons, respectively) that contained bird nests at the advanced stage of nest building or at the stage of egg laying. Presence of bumblebees prevented the birds from continuing the breeding activities in the nestboxes, while insects took over the birds' nests (a form of kleptoparasitism). Playback experiments showed that the warning buzz by bumblebees contributed to the success in ousting the birds from their nests. This demonstrates that aposematic signals may be beneficial also in the context of resource competition.

Concepts: Evolution, Insect, Predation, Ecology, Bird, Aposematism, Biological interaction, Bird nest


Theory suggests that aposematism, specifically the learned avoidance of unprofitable prey via memorable color patterns, should result in selection for pattern uniformity. However, many examples to the contrary are seen in nature. Conversely, honest sexual signals are likely to exhibit greater variation because they reflect underlying variation in mate quality. Here we aim to characterize and quantify the mechanistic causes of color in Tectocoris diopthalmus to shed light on the costs of color production, and thus the potential information content of its color signals. We use Tectocoris diopthalmus because it is a weakly-defended stinkbug, and presents elements that have classically been studied in the context of aposematism (red coloring), and sexual selection (sexual dichromatism and iridescent coloring). Pigment analysis reveals that variation in orange coloration is due to the amount of erythropterin pigment, stored in intracellular granules. This pigment is common in Heteroptera, and as an endogenously produced excretory byproduct is unlikely to reflect mate quality or variation in unprofitability of the bug. Electron microscopy reveals the iridescent patches are caused by an epicuticular multilayer reflector, and the hue and patch size are directly related to the layer widths and extent of coverage of this layering. Furthermore, we identified melanin as an essential component of the multilayer reflector system; therefore, the quality of the iridescent patches may be affected by aspects of rearing environment and immunocompetence. We posit that T. diopthalmus has co-opted the melanic patches of a ‘typical’ red and black aposematic signal, transforming it into a complex and variable iridescent signal that may enhance its capacity to display individual quality.

Concepts: Predation, Sexual selection, Color, Melanin, Red, Pigment, Hue, Aposematism


Multimodal signals facilitate communication with conspecifics during courtship, but they can also alert eavesdropper predators. Hence, signallers face two pressures: enticing partners to mate and avoiding detection by enemies. Undefended organisms with limited escape abilities are expected to minimize predator recognition over mate attraction by limiting or modifying their signalling. Alternatively, organisms with anti-predator mechanisms such as aposematism (i.e. unprofitability signalled by warning cues) might elaborate mating signals as a consequence of reduced predation. We hypothesize that calls diversified in association with aposematism. To test this, we assembled a large acoustic signal database for a diurnal lineage of aposematic and cryptic/non-defended taxa, the poison frogs. First, we showed that aposematic and non-aposematic species share similar extinction rates, and aposematic lineages diversify more and rarely revert to the non-aposematic phenotype. We then characterized mating calls based on morphological (spectral), behavioural/physiological (temporal) and environmental traits. Of these, only spectral and temporal features were associated with aposematism. We propose that with the evolution of anti-predator defences, reduced predation facilitated the diversification of vocal signals, which then became elaborated or showy via sexual selection.

Concepts: Evolution, Predation, Signal, Sexuality, Sexual conflict, Mating, Aposematism, Alfred Russel Wallace


Specular reflection appears as a bright spot or highlight on any smooth glossy convex surface and is caused by a near mirror-like reflectance off the surface. Convex shapes always provide the ideal geometry for highlights, areas of very strong reflectance, regardless of the orientation of the surface or position of the receiver. Despite highlights and glossy appearance being common in chemically defended insects, their potential signalling function is unknown. We tested the role of highlights in warning colouration of a chemically defended, alpine leaf beetle, Oreina cacaliae. We reduced the beetles' glossiness, hence their highlights, by applying a clear matt finish varnish on their elytra. We used blue tits as predators to examine whether the manipulation affected their initial latency to attack, avoidance learning and generalization of warning colouration. The birds learned to avoid both dull and glossy beetles but they initially avoided glossy prey more than dull prey. Interestingly, avoidance learning was generalized asymmetrically: birds that initially learned to avoid dull beetles avoided glossy beetles equally strongly, but not vice versa. We conclude that specular reflectance and glossiness can amplify the warning signal of O. cacaliae, augmenting avoidance learning, even if it is not critical for it.

Concepts: Insect, Predation, Signal, Beetle, Reflection, Aposematism, Glossmeter, Diffuse reflection


Predator-prey interactions involving aposematic signaling, where predators learn the warning cues of well-defended prey, are clear examples of cost-benefit decisions in foraging animals. However, knowledge of the selectivity of predator learning and the natural conditions where it occurs is lacking for those foragers simpler in brain and body plan. We pursued the question in the sea-slug Pleurobranchaea californica, a generalist forager of marked simplicity of body form, nervous system and behavior. This predator exploits many different types of prey, some of which are costly to attack. When offered Flabellina iodinea, an aeolid nudibranch with a stinging defence, biting attack was followed by rapid rejection and aversive turns. The predator sea-slug rapidly learned avoidance. Notable exceptions were animals with extremely high or low feeding thresholds that either ignored Flabellina or completely consumed it, respectively. Experienced slugs showed strong avoidance of Flabellina for days after exposure. Aposematic odor learning was selective: Avoidance was not linked to changesin feeding thresholds, and trained animals readily attacked and consumed a related aeolid, Hermissenda crassicornis. Aposematic learning could be related within a framework for cost-benefit decision in which effects of memory, motivation and odor sum in appetitive state to direct behavioral choice.

Concepts: Psychology, Predation, Lotka–Volterra equation, Optimal foraging theory, Aposematism


Prey often evolve defences to deter predators, such as noxious chemicals including toxins. Toxic species often advertise their defence to potential predators by distinctive sensory signals. Predators learn to associate toxicity with the signals of these so-called aposematic prey, and may avoid them in future. In turn, this selects for mildly toxic prey to mimic the appearance of more toxic prey. Empirical evidence shows that mimicry could be either beneficial (‘Mullerian’) or detrimental (‘quasi-Batesian’) to the highly toxic prey, but the factors determining which are unknown. Here, we use state-dependent models to explore how tri-trophic interactions could influence the evolution of prey defences. We consider how predation risk affects predators' optimal foraging strategies on aposematic prey, and explore the resultant impact this has on mimicry dynamics between unequally defended species. In addition, we also investigate how the potential energetic cost of metabolising a toxin can alter the benefits to eating toxic prey and thus impact on predators' foraging decisions. Our model predicts that both how predators perceive their own predation risk, and the cost of detoxification, can have significant, sometimes counterintuitive, effects on the foraging decisions of predators. For example, in some conditions predators should: (i) avoid prey they know to be undefended, (ii) eat more mildly toxic prey as detoxification costs increase, (iii) increase their intake of highly toxic prey as the abundance of undefended prey increases. These effects mean that the relationship between a mimic and its model can qualitatively depend on the density of alternative prey and the cost of metabolising toxins. In addition, these effects are mediated by the predators' own predation risk, which demonstrates that, higher trophic levels than previously considered can have fundamental impacts on interactions among aposematic prey species.

Concepts: Predation, Ecology, Poison, Toxin, Apex predator, Optimal foraging theory, Aposematism