Researchers break the animal kingdom's colour code

Apr 16, 2009

Charles Darwin was fascinated by the colours of animals - he once wrote to his colleague Alfred Russell Wallace asking why certain animals were "so
beautifully and artistically coloured".

It is a question that has intrigued ever since. Now research spearheaded at the University of York (in collaboration with researchers from the University of Glasgow, and Carleton University in Canada) has used computer models to trace the of this extravagant colouring.

Researchers in the York Centre for Analysis (YCCSA) sought to explain why most animals that have an anti-predatory defence, such as a
sting or poison, tend to be brightly coloured.

Mimicry is common in nature. Defenceless frequently evolve to look like a nasty species, so that potential cannot distinguish between
the two -- a good meal or an unpleasant experience.

Such mimicry is good for the defenceless species which predators can mistake for a daunting adversary, but is bad for nasty species which might be
mistaken as a good meal.

The YCSSA research, published in Evolution, suggests that nasty prey may have evolved bright colours to avoid this kind of mimicry. Bright colours are harder for defenceless prey to mimic because they have a survival cost of increased detectability by predators. There are also many ways to look distinctive when brightly coloured, but limited scope for doing so when camouflaged, because camouflage needs to blend in with the background.

Lead researcher Dr Dan Franks, of YCCSA, said: "Our computer models show that this way of looking at the evolution of bright colours explains why in
nature we generally find that the nastier the prey species (e.g. the more poisonous) the brighter the animal.

"The nastier the animal, the more it can 'afford' a bright and distinctive livery to copyright its appearance. It's similar to the way that big
companies closely guard their appearance in an attempt to build clear brand recognition."

More information: D.W. Franks & G.D. Ruxton & T.N. Sherratt (2009) Warning signals evolve to disengage Batesian mimics, Evolution , 63(1): 256-267 www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/117958524/home

Provided by University of York

Explore further: In battle of the sexes, a single night with a New York male is enough to kill

Related Stories

Dramatic snake colour-change mystery solved

Dec 06, 2006

The mystery surrounding a snake that undergoes a spectacular colour change has been solved by ANU ecologists who have found that the skin of the green python – which begins life either bright yellow or red ...

Choosy females make colourful males

May 09, 2006

Female fish prefer brightly coloured males because they are easier to see and are in better shape concludes Dutch researcher Martine Maan following her study of fish speciation in the East African Lakes. Environmental variation ...

Predators prefer to hunt small-brained prey

Aug 02, 2006

Predators such as leopards and chimpanzees consistently target smaller-brained prey less capable of escape; research at the University of Liverpool has shown.

Imitation is not just flattery for Amazon butterfly species

Dec 02, 2008

Many studies of evolution focus on the benefits to the individual of competing successfully – those who survive produce the most offspring, in Darwin's classic 'survival of the fittest'. But how does this translate to the ...

Recommended for you

Do you have the time? Flies sure do

3 hours ago

Flies might be smarter than you think. According to research reported in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on May 28, fruit flies know what time of day it is. What's more, the insects can learn to con ...

Barking characterizes dogs as voice characterizes people

6 hours ago

An international group of researchers has conducted a study on canine behavior showing that gender, age, context and individual recognition can be identified with a high percentage of success through statistical ...

Bird beaks feeling the heat of climate change, say scientists

8 hours ago

While the human population grapples with ways to counter the effects of climate change, Deakin University research has discovered that birds might have been working on their own solution for the past 145 years – grow bigger ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.