Birds learn to use distastefulness as a signal of toxicity

John Skelhorn, Candy Rowe


Aposematic prey advertise their toxicity using conspicuous visual signals that predators quickly learn to avoid. However, it is advantageous for predators not to simply avoid toxic prey, but to learn about the amount of toxin that prey contain, and include them in their diets when the nutritional gains are high relative to the costs of ingesting the toxin. Therefore, when foraging on a defended prey population where individuals vary in their toxin concentration, predators should learn to use cues which distinguish prey with different levels of toxicity in order to include less defended individuals in their diets. In this experiment, we found that European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) could learn to use a bitter taste to predict the amount of toxin that individual prey contained, and use that information to preferentially ingest less toxic prey to maximize their nutrient intake relative to the amount of toxin ingested. Our results suggest that bitter tastes could evolve as reliable signals of toxicity, and can help to explain why many toxins taste bitter. They also highlight the need to develop new mathematical simulations of the evolution of prey defences which incorporate the adaptive decision-making processes underlying nutrient and toxin management.


  • Present address: Division of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Faculty of Biomedical and Life Sciences, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK.

    • Received November 17, 2009.
    • Accepted January 13, 2010.
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