Rapid evolution of mimicry following local model extinction

Christopher K. Akcali, David W. Pfennig


Batesian mimicry evolves when individuals of a palatable species gain the selective advantage of reduced predation because they resemble a toxic species that predators avoid. Here, we evaluated whether—and in which direction—Batesian mimicry has evolved in a natural population of mimics following extirpation of their model. We specifically asked whether the precision of coral snake mimicry has evolved among kingsnakes from a region where coral snakes recently (1960) went locally extinct. We found that these kingsnakes have evolved more precise mimicry; by contrast, no such change occurred in a sympatric non-mimetic species or in conspecifics from a region where coral snakes remain abundant. Presumably, more precise mimicry has continued to evolve after model extirpation, because relatively few predator generations have passed, and the fitness costs incurred by predators that mistook a deadly coral snake for a kingsnake were historically much greater than those incurred by predators that mistook a kingsnake for a coral snake. Indeed, these results are consistent with prior theoretical and empirical studies, which revealed that only the most precise mimics are favoured as their model becomes increasingly rare. Thus, highly noxious models can generate an ‘evolutionary momentum’ that drives the further evolution of more precise mimicry—even after models go extinct.

  • Received April 9, 2014.
  • Accepted May 22, 2014.
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