Evolutionary Ecology

, Volume 30, Issue 5, pp 797–809 | Cite as

The ecology of multiple colour defences

  • Tim Caro
  • Tom N. Sherratt
  • Martin Stevens
Ideas & Perspectives


Individuals of many species are considered to rely on a single type of external appearance to escape predation but there are many notable exceptions. To develop an ecological framework to explain why some individuals employ different colour patterns as part of their defensive repertoire, we collate examples of colour change that are associated with living in different environments and microhabitats, examples of age-related colour change, colour defences tailored to different predators, and startle displays, where hidden conspicuous colour patterns are suddenly revealed. The over-arching commonality to all these examples is that the use of more than one defense-related external appearance is associated with a spatial or temporal change in predation risk. For example, coarse scale temporal changes in an animal’s background frequently select for gradual colour changes, while fine-scale spatial heterogeneity selects for more rapid colour changes and we provide a graphical framework for this. Irrespective of the mechanisms underlying colour change, using more than one colour defence appears driven by variation in predation risk rather than by idiosyncratic abilities to alter external appearances as is commonly believed, although physiological and energetic factors will play some role.


Aposematism Ontogenetic colour change Conspicuousness Crypsis Deimatic displays Predation pressure 



We thank Daniel Osorio, Devi Stuart-Fox and the associate editor for helpful comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology, and Center for Population BiologyUniversity of CaliforniaDavisUSA
  2. 2.Wissenschaftskolleg zu BerlinBerlinGermany
  3. 3.Department of BiologyCarleton UniversityOttawaCanada
  4. 4.Centre for Ecology and Conservation, College of Life and Environmental SciencesUniversity of ExeterPenrynUK

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