, Volume 28, Issue 3, pp 427-439

Importance of conspicuous colours in warning signals: the great tit’s (Parus major) point of view

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Few studies have dealt with the importance of colours per se in warning signalling, with the use of a broader array of different colours. We tested the reactions of great tits (Parus major) to colour modifications (red, orange, yellow, white, blue, violet, and green) of the warning signal of the red firebug (Pyrrhocoris apterus), preserving its typical black pattern. We used the edible Guyana spotted roach (Blaptica dubia) as the prey, each of which carried a paper sticker shield of a particular colour on its back. With such prey, the effects of the other traits of the red firebug (e.g. shape of the legs and antennae or chemical signals) on the birds’ reactions were removed. All of the conspicuous forms of the prey, possessing a black pattern, were protected against great tits better than the non-patterned brown control form. The level of protection decreased from those forms with colours similar to the model and commonly occurring in warning signals in nature (red, orange, yellow), through other conspicuous colours rarely occurring in warning signals in nature (white, violet, blue), to the colour which usually occurs as cryptic in nature (green). In the green form, repeated encounters were necessary to reach avoidance. Avoidance learning came to pass despite the fact that the presented prey was neither inedible nor distasteful.