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Variation in disgust response provides different social information for predators : implications for the evolution of prey defences

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Title: Variation in disgust response provides different social information for predators : implications for the evolution of prey defences
Author(s): Mulà, Clelia
Contributor: University of Helsinki, Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences
Degree program: Master's Programme in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Specialisation: no specialization
Language: English
Acceptance year: 2021
Prey defend themselves from predators using a range of tactics, including evolving distasteful compounds and advertising their unprofitability with aposematic warning signals. Therefore, before attacking a potential prey, predators need to assess whether it is palatable and profitable to consume. Previous studies have demonstrated that predators can rely on personal experience (personal information) and/or observe the foraging behaviour of others (social information) to assess prey profitability. ‘Social avoidance learning’, where predators observe a negative foraging experience associated with beak wiping, has been suggested to be important to explain how novel warning signals evolve. However, in previous studies observers saw a very strong “disgust response” of the demonstrators, when in fact there is variation in how strongly birds respond to unpalatable food. Therefore, to understand how social avoidance learning can work in nature I investigated how blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) use social information from demonstrators that show a weaker response to unpalatable food. I provided social information to observers using video playback of a demonstrator bird consuming a novel conspicuous prey item and showing: (1) a strong disgust response (65-95 beak wipes) as in previous studies, (2) a weak disgust response (12-25 beak wipes), or (3) no disgust response (control, no beak wiping). Next, I investigated birds’ foraging choices using a miniature novel world protocol where birds encountered novel aposematic (conspicuous and unpalatable) and cryptic (camouflaged and palatable) prey. Tested individuals consumed fewer aposematic prey after seeing a strong response but seeing a weak response did not influence their foraging choices. My results, therefore, suggest that information about novel aposematic prey may be less likely to spread socially than previously thought. However, more work is needed to determine both the availability and salience of graded social information.
Keyword(s): aposematism prey defence signals warning signals evolution variation unpalatability disgust response avoidance social learning social information prey predator demonstrator observer playback

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