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Social transmission of avoidance among predators facilitates the spread of novel prey [Nature Ecology & Evolution]

Keywords : behavioural ecology, coevolution

by Frédéric Magné - published on

Warning signals are an effective defence strategy for aposematic prey, but only if they are recognized by potential predators. If predators must eat prey to associate novel warning signals with unpalatability, how can aposematic prey ever evolve? Using experiments with great tits (Parus major) as predators, we show that social transmission enhances the acquisition of avoidance by a predator population. Observing another predator’s disgust towards tasting one novel conspicuous prey item led to fewer aposematic than cryptic prey being eaten for the predator population to learn. Despite reduced personal encounters with unpalatable prey, avoidance persisted and increased over subsequent trials. Next we use a mathematical model to show that social transmission can shift the evolutionary trajectory of prey populations from fixation of crypsis to fixation of aposematism more easily than was previously thought. Therefore, social information use by predators has the potential to have evolutionary consequences across ecological communities.

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