Does colour polymorphism enhance survival of prey populations?

Lena Wennersten, Anders Forsman


That colour polymorphism may protect prey populations from predation is an old but rarely tested hypothesis. We examine whether colour polymorphic populations of prey exposed to avian predators in an ecologically valid visual context were exposed to increased extinction risk compared with monomorphic populations. We made 2976 artificial pastry prey, resembling Lepidoptera larvae, in four different colours and presented them in 124 monomorphic and 124 tetramorphic populations on tree trunks and branches such that they would be exposed to predation by free-living birds, and monitored their ‘survival’. Among monomorphic populations, there was a significant effect of prey coloration on survival, confirming that coloration influenced susceptibility to visually oriented predators. Survival of polymorphic populations was inferior to that of monomorphic green populations, but did not differ significantly from monomorphic brown, yellow or red populations. Differences in survival within polymorphic populations paralleled those seen among monomorphic populations; the red morph most frequently went extinct first and the green morph most frequently survived the longest. Our findings do not support the traditional protective polymorphism hypothesis and are in conflict with those of earlier studies. As a possible explanation to our findings, we offer a competing ‘giveaway cue’ hypothesis: that polymorphic populations may include one morph that attracts the attention of predators and that polymorphic populations therefore may suffer increased predation compared with some monomorphic populations.



    • Received February 13, 2009.
    • Accepted February 27, 2009.
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