The benefits of being toxic to deter predators depends on prey body size

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Many prey have evolved toxins as a defense against predation. Those species that advertise their toxicity to would-be predators with conspicuous warning signals are known as “aposematic.” Investment in toxicity by aposematically signaling prey is thought to underpin how aversive prey are to predators; increasing toxicity means that predators learn to avoid prey faster and attack them at lower rates. However, predators’ foraging decisions on aposematic prey are determined not only by their toxicity, but also by their nutrient content: predators can trade-off the costs of ingesting toxin with the benefits of acquiring nutrients. Prey body size is a cue that positively correlates with nutrient content, and that varies within and between aposematic species. We predicted that a dose of quinine (known to be toxic to birds) would be a more effective deterrent to avian predators when prey were small compared with when they were large, and that the benefits of possessing toxin would be greater for small-bodied prey. Using an established laboratory protocol of European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) foraging on mealworms (Tenebrio molitor), we found evidence for increased protection from a dose of quinine for small-bodied compared with large-bodied prey. This shows that larger prey need more toxin to attain the same level of defense as smaller prey, which has implications for the evolution of aposematism and mimicry.

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