The signal environment is more important than diet or chemical specialization in the evolution of warning coloration

Kathleen L. Prudic, Jeffrey C. Oliver, Felix A.H. Sperling

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


Aposematic coloration, or warning coloration, is a visual signal that acts to minimize contact between predator and unprofitable prey. The conditions favoring the evolution of aposematic coloration remain largely unidentified. Recent work suggests that diet specialization and resultant toxicity may play a role in facilitating the evolution and persistence of warning coloration. Using a phylogenetic approach, we investigated the evolution of larval warning coloration in the genus Papilio (Lepidoptera: Papilionidae). Our results indicate that there are at least four independent origins of aposematic larval coloration within Papilio. Controlling for phylogenetic relatedness among Papilio taxa, we found no evidence supporting the hypothesis that either diet specialization or chemical specialization facilitated the origin of aposematic larvae. However, there was a significant relationship between the signal environment and the evolution of aposematic larvae. Specifically, Papilio lineages feeding on herbaceous or narrow-leaved plants, regardless of the plants' taxonomic affiliation, were more likely to evolve aposematic larvae than were lineages feeding only on trees/shrubs or broad-leaved plants. These results demonstrate that factors other than diet specialization, such as the signal environment of predator-prey interactions, may play a large role in the initial evolution and persistence of aposematic coloration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)19381-19386
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number49
StatePublished - Dec 4 2007


  • Caterpillar
  • Diet specialization
  • Lepidoptera
  • Papilio

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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