The signal detection problem of aposematic prey revisited: Integrating prior social and personal experience

Liisa Hämäläinen, Rose Thorogood*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Ever since Alfred R. Wallace suggested brightly coloured, toxic insects warn predators about their unprofitability, evolutionary biologists have searched for an explanation of how these aposematic prey evolve and are maintained in natural populations. Understanding how predators learn about this widespread prey defence is fundamental to addressing the problem, yet individuals differ in their foraging decisions and the predominant application of associative learning theory largely ignores predators' foraging context. Here we revisit the suggestion made 15 years ago that signal detection theory provides a useful framework to model predator learning by emphasizing the integration of prior information into predation decisions. Using multiple experiments where we modified the availability of social information using video playback, we show that personal information (sampling aposematic prey) improves how predators (great tits, Parus major) discriminate between novel aposematic and cryptic prey. However, this relationship was not linear and beyond a certain point personal encounters with aposematic prey were no longer informative for prey discrimination. Social information about prey unpalatability reduced attacks on aposematic prey across learning trials, but it did not influence the relationship between personal sampling and discrimination. Our results suggest therefore that acquiring social information does not influence the value of personal information, but more experiments are needed to manipulate pay-offs and disentangle whether information sources affect response thresholds or change discrimination. 

This article is part of the theme issue 'Signal detection theory in recognition systems: from evolving models to experimental tests'.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20190473
Pages (from-to)1-9
Number of pages9
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1802
Publication statusPublished - 6 Jul 2020


  • aposematism
  • predator-prey interactions
  • signal detection theory
  • social information use


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