Animals that are brightly colored have intrigued scientists since the time of Darwin, because it seems surprising that prey should have evolved to be clearly visible to predators. Often this self-advertisement is explained by the prey being unprofitable in some way, with the conspicuous warning coloration helping to protect the prey because it signals to potential predators that the prey is unprofitable. However, such signals only work in this way once predators have learned to associate the conspicuous color with the unprofitability of the prey. The evolution of warning coloration is still widely considered to be a paradox, because it has traditionally been assumed that the very first brightly colored individuals would be at an immediate selective disadvantage because of their greater conspicuousness to predators that are naive to the meaning of the signal. As a result, it has been difficult to understand how a novel conspicuous color morph could ever avoid extinction for long enough for predators to become educated about the signal. Thus, the traditional view that the evolution of warning coloration is difficult to explain rests entirely on assumptions about the foraging behavior of predators. However, we review recent evidence from a range of studies of predator foraging decisions, which refute these established assumptions. These studies show that: (1) Many predators are so conservative in their food preferences that even very conspicuous novel prey morphs are not necessarily at a selective disadvantage. (2) The survival and spread of novel color morphs can be simulated in field and aviary experiments using real predators (birds) foraging on successive generations of artificial prey populations. This work demonstrates that the foraging preferences of predators can regularly (though not always) result in the increase to fixation of a novel morph appearing in a population of familiar-colored prey. Such fixation events occur even if both novel and familiar prey are fully palatable and despite the novel food being much more conspicuous than the familiar prey. These studies therefore provide strong empirical evidence that conspicuous coloration can evolve readily, and repeatedly, as a result of the conservative foraging decisions of predators.
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Vol. 59 • No. 5