An experiment was performed to assess the relative survival of two forms of 5th instar larvae of Lygaeus equestris (Heteroptera, Lygaeidae) — the normal red form, called aposematic, and a mutant grey form, called cryptic — when given to hand-raised great tits (Parus major).
Sixteen birds were presented with aposematic larvae and 16 were presented with cryptic larvae in 10 consecutive trials. One attack per trial was allowed. Both larval forms were presented against a background matching the grey larvae, but since both prey types were presented in a specific place known to the predator, detection rate for both was assumed to be unity.
Birds learned to avoid both prey types. However, the survival of the aposematic larvae was higher than that of the cryptic ones due to three aspects of predator behaviour: i) a greater initial reluctance to attack, ii) a more rapid avoidance learning, and iii) a lower frequency of killing in an attack, when the prey was aposematic. Moreover, a greater number of birds learned to avoid prey without killing any individual, when the prey was aposematic. This result is considered to be due to prey coloration alone, since, in a separate test, no difference in prey distastefulness could be detected.
This experiment shows that individual prey can benefit from being aposematic and indicates that individual selection can be a sufficient explanation for the evolution of aposematic coloration. It was concluded that, since the survivorship was 6.4 times higher for the aposematic prey, it could have a detection rate that is correspondingly higher than the cryptic in order for the two forms to have equal fitness.