A role for phenotypic plasticity in the evolution of aposematism. Academic Article uri icon


  • The evolution of warning coloration (aposematism) has been difficult to explain because rare conspicuous mutants should suffer a higher cost of discovery by predators relative to the cryptic majority, while at frequencies too low to facilitate predator aversion learning. Traditional models for the evolution of aposematism have assumed conspicuous prey phenotypes to be genetically determined and constitutive. By contrast, we have recently come to understand that warning coloration can be environmentally determined and mediated by local prey density, thereby reducing the initial costs of conspicuousness. The expression of density-dependent colour polyphenism is widespread among the insects and may provide an alternative pathway for the evolution of constitutive aposematic phenotypes in unpalatable prey by providing a protected intermediate stage. If density-dependent aposematism can function as an adaptive intermediate stage for the evolution of constitutive aposematic phenotypes, differential reaction norm evolution is predicted among related palatable and unpalatable prey populations. Here, I present empirical evidence that indicates that (i) the expression of density-dependent colour polyphenism has differentially evolved between palatable and unpalatable populations of the grasshopper Schistocerca emarginata (= lineata) (Orthoptera: Acrididae), and (ii) variation in plasticity between these populations is commensurate with the expected costs of conspicuousness.

published proceedings

  • Proc Biol Sci

author list (cited authors)

  • Sword, G. A.

citation count

  • 61

complete list of authors

  • Sword, Gregory A

publication date

  • August 2002