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Can experienced birds select for Müllerian mimicry?

By Eira Ihalainen, Leena Lindström, Johanna Mappes and Sari Puolakkainen


Field experiments have shown that avian predators in the wild can select for similarity of warning signals in aposematic prey (Müllerian mimicry) because a common signal is better protected than a signal that is novel and rare. The original theory of Müllerian mimicry assumes that the mechanism promoting mimicry is predator learning; by sharing a signal, the comimic species share the mortality that is due to sampling by inexperienced predators. Predation events have not been observed in the wild, and learning experiments with naive bird predators in a laboratory have not unambiguously shown a benefit of a uniform signal compared with different signals. As predators in the field experiments are likely to be more experienced compared with previous laboratory experiments, we studied selection by experienced predators on a novel imperfect mimic. We trained great tits Parus major to avoid artificial aposematic models and subsequently introduced perfect and imperfect mimics at different frequencies. Birds with prior experience on the models selected against the imperfect mimics that were at a disadvantage also in a memory test conducted a week after their introduction. Selection against the imperfect mimics was antiapostatic. However, the imperfect mimics also benefited from some signal generalization to the models and possibly gained protection because the birds were familiar with the alternative cryptic prey that was also present. Our results suggest that experienced predators might be more important to the evolution of mimicry than the learning-based theory assumes. Copyright 2008, Oxford University Press.

DOI identifier: 10.1093/beheco
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