The evolution of colour pattern complexity: selection for conspicuousness favours contrasting within-body colour combinations in lizards

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Many animals display complex colour patterns that comprise several adjacent, often contrasting colour patches. Combining patches of complementary colours increases the overall conspicuousness of the complex pattern, enhancing signal detection. Therefore, selection for conspicuousness may act not only on the design of single colour patches, but also on their combination. Contrasting long- and short-wavelength colour patches are located on the ventral and lateral surfaces of many lacertid lizards. As the combination of long- and short-wavelength-based colours generates local chromatic contrast, we hypothesized that selection may favour the co-occurrence of lateral and ventral contrasting patches, resulting in complex colour patterns that maximize the overall conspicuousness of the signal. To test this hypothesis, we performed a comparative phylogenetic study using a categorical colour classification based on spectral data and descriptive information on lacertid coloration collected from the literature. Our results demonstrate that conspicuous ventral (long-wavelength-based) and lateral (short-wavelength-based) colour patches co-occur throughout the lacertid phylogeny more often than expected by chance, especially in the subfamily Lacertini. These results suggest that selection promotes the evolution of the complex pattern rather than the acquisition of a single conspicuous colour patch, possibly due to the increased conspicuousness caused by the combination of colours with contrasting spectral properties.

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