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Breaking The Animal Kingdom's Color Code

Date:
April 21, 2009
Source:
University of York
Summary:
Charles Darwin was fascinated by the colors of animals. Ever since, researchers have wondered why most animals that have an anti-predatory defense, such as a sting or poison, tend to be brightly colored. Now, new computer models have been developed to explain the evolution of the distinctive colouring of many species of wildlife.

Peruvian poison frog (Deandrobates reticolatus). "The nastier the animal, the more it can 'afford' a bright and distinctive livery to copyright its appearance," said Dr Dan Franks.
Credit: iStockphoto/Nicola Vernizzi

Research spearheaded by the University of York has used computer models to explain the evolution of the distinctive colouring of many species of wildlife.

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 biologists 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 evolution of this extravagant colouring.  

Researchers in the York Centre for Complex Systems 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 species frequently evolve to look like a nasty species, so that potential predators 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 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.”


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of York. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Franks et al. Warning signals evolve to disengage Batesian mimics. Evolution, 2009; 63 (1): 256 DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2008.00509.x

Cite This Page:

University of York. "Breaking The Animal Kingdom's Color Code." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 April 2009. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090416105348.htm>.
University of York. (2009, April 21). Breaking The Animal Kingdom's Color Code. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 21, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090416105348.htm
University of York. "Breaking The Animal Kingdom's Color Code." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090416105348.htm (accessed August 21, 2014).

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