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Journal Article

Poison Frog Colors Are Honest Signals of Toxicity, Particularly for Bird Predators

Martine E. Maan and Molly E. Cummings
The American Naturalist
Vol. 179, No. 1 (January 2012), pp. E1-E14
DOI: 10.1086/663197
Stable URL:
Page Count: 14

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Topics: Toxicity, Frogs, Colors, Predators, Alkaloids, Birds, Spectral reflectance, Snakes, Visual system, Photoreceptors
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AbstractAntipredator defenses and warning signals typically evolve in concert. However, the extensive variation across taxa in both these components of predator deterrence and the relationship between them are poorly understood. Here we test whether there is a predictive relationship between visual conspicuousness and toxicity levels across 10 populations of the color-polymorphic strawberry poison frog, Dendrobates pumilio. Using a mouse-based toxicity assay, we find extreme variation in toxicity between frog populations. This variation is significantly positively correlated with frog coloration brightness, a viewer-independent measure of visual conspicuousness (i.e., total reflectance flux). We also examine conspicuousness from the view of three potential predator taxa, as well as conspecific frogs, using taxon-specific visual detection models and three natural background substrates. We find very strong positive relationships between frog toxicity and conspicuousness for bird-specific perceptual models. Weaker but still positive correlations are found for crab and D. pumilio conspecific visual perception, while frog coloration as viewed by snakes is not related to toxicity. These results suggest that poison frog colors can be honest signals of prey unpalatability to predators and that birds in particular may exert selection on aposematic signal design.

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