How cognitive biases select for imperfect mimicry: a study of asymmetry in learning with bumblebees

David W. Kikuchi, Anna Dornhaus

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Imperfect mimicry presents a paradox of incomplete adaptation – intuitively, closer resemblance should improve performance. Receiver psychology can often explain why mimetic signals do not always evolve to match those of their models. Here, we explored the influence of a pervasive and powerful cognitive bias where associative learning depends upon an asymmetric interaction between the cue (stimulus) and consequence (reinforcer), such as in rats, which will associate light and tone with shock, and taste with nausea, but not the converse. Can such biases alter selection for mimicry? We designed an artificial mimicry system where bees foraged on artificial flowers, so that colours could be switched between rewarding or aversive. We found that when the colour blue was paired with a sucrose reward, other cues were ignored, but not when blue was paired with aversive compounds. We also tested the hypothesis that costs of errors affect how receivers sample imperfect mimics. However, costs of errors did not affect bee visits to imperfect mimics in our study. We propose a novel hypothesis for imperfect mimicry, in which the pairing between specific cues and reinforcers allows an imperfect mimic to resemble multiple models simultaneously. Generally, our results emphasize the importance of receiver psychology for the evolution of signal complexity and specificity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)125-134
Number of pages10
JournalAnimal Behaviour
StatePublished - Oct 2018


  • Bombus impatiens
  • floral mimicry
  • multicomponent signal
  • overshadowing
  • prepared learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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