Peak shift discrimination learning as a mechanism of signal evolution

Spencer K. Lynn, Jonathan Cnaani, Daniel R. Papaj

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

105 Scopus citations


"Peak shift" is a behavioral response bias arising from discrimination learning in which animals display a directional, but limited, preference for or avoidance of unusual stimuli. Its hypothesized evolutionary relevance has been primarily in the realm of aposematic coloration and limited sexual dimorphism. Here, we develop a novel functional approach to peak shift, based on signal detection theory, which characterizes the response bias as arising from uncertainty about stimulus appearance, frequency, and quality. This approach allows the influence of peak shift to be generalized to the evolution of signals in a variety of domains and sensory modalities. The approach is illustrated with a bumblebee (Bombus impatiens) discrimination learning experiment. Bees exhibited peak shift while foraging in an artificial Batesian mimicry system. Changes in flower abundance, color distribution, and visitation reward induced bees to preferentially visit novel flower colors that reduced the risk of flower-type misidentification. Under conditions of signal uncertainty, peak shift results in visitation to rarer, but more easily distinguished, morphological variants of rewarding species in preference to their average morphology. Peak shift is a common and taxonomically widespread phenomenon. This example of the possible role of peak shift in signal evolution can be generalized to other systems in which a signal receiver learns to make choices in situations in which signal variation is linked to the sender's reproductive success.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1300-1305
Number of pages6
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2005


  • Batesian mimicry
  • Decision-making
  • Learning
  • Peak shift
  • Sexual selection
  • Signal detection theory
  • Signal evolution

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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