• Beatty, Christopher D.
  • Beirinckx, Kirsten
  • Sherratt, Thomas N.


Prey species that are unprofitable to attack often share conspicuous colours and patterns with other coexisting defended species. This phenomenon, termed müllerian mimicry, has long been explained as a consequence of selection on defended prey to adopt a common way of advertising their unprofitability. However, studies using two unpalatable prey types have not always supported this theory. Here we show, using a system of humans hunting for computer-generated prey, that predators do not always generate strong selection for mimicry when there are two unprofitable prey types. By contrast, we demonstrate that when predators are faced with a range of different prey species, selection on unprofitable prey to resemble one another can be intense. Here the primary selective force is not one in which predators evaluate the profitabilities of distinct prey types independently, but one in which predators learn better to avoid unprofitable phenotypes that share traits distinguishing them from profitable prey. This need to simplify decision making readily facilitates the spread of imperfect mimetic forms from rarity, and suggests that müllerian mimicry is more likely to arise in multispecies communities.