Are the unken reflex and the aposematic colouration of red-bellied toads efficient against bird predation?

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Abstract

Aposematic signals as well as body behaviours may be important anti-predator defences. Species of the genus Melanophryniscus are characterised by having toxic lipophilic alkaloids in the skin and for presenting a red ventral colouration, which can be observed when they perform the behaviour called the unken reflex. Both the reflex behaviour and the colouration pattern are described as defence mechanisms. However, there are currently no studies testing their effectiveness against predators. This study aimed to test experimentally if both ventral conspicuous colouration and the unken reflex in Melanophryniscus cambaraensis function as aposematic signals against visually oriented predators (birds). We simulated the species studied using three different clay toad models as follows: (a) in a normal position with green coloured bodies, (b) in the unken reflex position with green coloured body and extremities and (c) in the unken reflex position with a green body and red extremities. Models were distributed on a known M. cambaraensis breeding site and in the adjacent forest. More than half of the attacks on the models were from birds; however, there was no preference for any model type. Thus, just the presence of the red colour associated with the motionless unken reflex position does not seem to prevent attacks from potential predators. It is possible that the effective aposematic signal in Melanophryniscus is achieved through the unken reflex movement together with the subsequent exhibition of the warning colouration and the secretion of toxins.

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Bordignon, D. W., Caorsi, V. Z., Colombo, P., Abadie, M., Brack, I. V., Dasoler, B. T., & Borges-Martins, M. (2018). Are the unken reflex and the aposematic colouration of red-bellied toads efficient against bird predation? PLoS ONE, 13(3). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0193551

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