Margaret has taught many Biology and Environmental Science courses and has Master's degrees in Environmental Science and Education.
Definition of Warning Colorations
Over time, organisms have developed many different strategies for survival. For prey species, those that are hunted and killed by other animals, adaptations that keep them from being consumed are their most important survival strategies. Some species are fast and can run from predators, and others are strong and can fight off predators. Those species that are neither fast nor strong need another way to protect themselves from predators.
Some prey species utilize camouflage, the ability to blend in with the environment to avoid predation. Although this strategy helps some species go undetected by predators, other prey species want to stand out and be noticed. These species use warning colorations, or brightly colored or distinctive markings on their bodies. Commonly used bright colors include reds, oranges, and yellows, and the distinct markings normally include some form of contrasting colors.
So, why would a prey species want to stand out and be noticed? Prey species that use warning colorations want to attract predators so that they can show the predator that they are poisonous or toxic and by eating them, the predator will be harmed. After a predator encounters a prey species that has warning colorations and it is harmed, they will associate the color or pattern with the negative experience, and most likely, not try to consume the prey again.
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Examples of Animals that Use Warning Coloration
Poison dart frogs are an example of a prey species that utilizes very bright colors to survive. As you may have guessed from the name, poison dart frogs are poisonous and can cause serious harm to a predator. There are over one hundred species of poison dart frogs, and they have a wide range of colors and patterns. Although the design of each species may vary, they all contain a poison in their skin that will sicken or kill predators. One species, the golden poison arrow frog, has poison so toxic that it could kill a small animal or human if consumed. The bright colors of these frogs are a warning to predators that they should not be consumed.
Skunks utilize warning colorations in the form of a pattern with contrasting colors. They have a distinct pattern of white and black on their backs that acts as a warning to predators that they should not try to prey on them. If a skunk is attacked, it will spray a very foul smelling liquid at the predator. For the most part, this unpleasant experience will teach a predator to avoid skunks, and their unique contrasting pattern will serve as a reminder that attacking a skunk is not worth the suffering that will result.
Monarch butterflies are an example of a prey species that uses bright colors and a distinctive pattern to warn predators that they are not a desirable prey. Monarch butterflies are toxic due to the milkweed plants that they consume as caterpillars. If a bird bites or consumes a monarch butterfly, they will become very ill due to the toxin. Although the individual butterfly may die in an attack by a predator, the bird will be much less likely to prey on a monarch butterfly again, thus helping the survival of the monarch species as a whole.
Over time, organisms have developed many different strategies for survival. For prey species, those that are hunted and killed by other animals, adaptations that keep them from being consumed are their most important survival strategies. Although prey species have developed a wide variety of survival strategies, the use of bright colors and contrasting patterns is a very unique method for increasing survival.
Some species use warning colorations, or brightly colored or distinctive markings on their bodies. The use of warning colorations helps many species avoid predation by showing their predator that they are an undesirable prey item because they will cause harm to a predator that attacks or consumes it. This strategy helps some prey species survive long enough to reproduce and pass along the genes for this interesting strategy to their offspring.
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Warning Coloration in Animals: Examples, Overview
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