Warning Coloration

Another Fun Fact describes animal camouflage. An opposite strategy, warning coloration, is used by some animals that have venom, spines, stingers, foul scents, or are toxic, to advertise to predators that they are not desirable prey. The advertisement occurs in the form of bright (red, orange, and yellow are common) or contrasting colors (black and white) to warn off predators.

Monarch butterflies, for example, contain toxins they derive from the milkweed plants they eat as caterpillars. These toxins make birds that mistakenly eat them very ill. While this experience does not save the life of the unfortunate monarch, it is definitely a "one event learning experience" for the bird involved. The bird will never prey on a monarch butterfly again.

Anyone who has ever seen a skunk will be impressed by the striking black and white warning coloration. Anyone who has ever smelled a skunk will have also undergone a "one event learning experience" and try to avoid them. Owls and cars are the principle predators of skunks. Owls can snatch a skunk before it can spray, and cars are not capable of learning. Other predators such as bobcats, coyotes, and foxes must be luck, very fast, or very hungry to make a meal of a skunk!

Bees have a bright and distinctive warning coloration to alert predators that they have stingers. The yellow and black bands contrast remarkably well making bees visible in a wide variety of situations. Those animals capable of preying on bees usually are airborne (birds) and can strike before the bee can retaliate, have their own toxins (spiders), or have thick enough fur (bears and skunks) to protect them from bee stings.

Warning coloration and formidable defenses are not always enough to protect animals from predators, but they can make a predator think twice. Sometimes that is enough of an advantage to save an animal's life.

Last updated: March 31, 2012

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