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Prey community structure affects how predators select for Mullerian mimicry

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Ihalainen, E., Rowland, H. M., Speed, M. P., Ruxton, G. D., & Mappes, J. (2012). Prey community structure affects how predators select for Mullerian mimicry. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 279(1736), 2099-2105. doi:10.1098/rspb.2011.2360.

Mullerian mimicry describes the close resemblance between aposematic prey species; it is thought to be beneficial because sharing a warning signal decreases the mortality caused by sampling by inexperienced predators learning to avoid the signal. It has been hypothesized that selection for mimicry is strongest in multi-species prey communities where predators are more prone to misidentify the prey than in simple communities. In this study, wild great tits (Parus major) foraged from either simple (few prey appearances) or complex (several prey appearances) artificial prey communities where a specific model prey was always present. Owing to slower learning, the model did suffer higher mortality in complex communities when the birds were inexperienced. However, in a subsequent generalization test to potential mimics of the model prey (a continuum of signal accuracy), only birds that had foraged from simple communities selected against inaccurate mimics. Therefore, accurate mimicry is more likely to evolve in simple communities even though predator avoidance learning is slower in complex communities. For mimicry to evolve, prey species must have a common predator; the effective community consists of the predator's diet. In diverse environments, the limited diets of specialist predators could create 'simple community pockets' where accurate mimicry is selected for.