Not hiding in plain sight

Brightly colored animals seem to flaunt the potential danger of being someone else’s dinner.  Calling attention to themselves with bright colors and flashy appendages seems counter-intuitive to survival.  So why do it?

It’s all about the advertising.  Bright color can be a warning to other animals.  Don’t eat me:  I’ll make you sick, my bite is lethal, I have a wicked sting.  You’ve undoubtedly seen these types of warnings in your garden.

monarchs on blazing star-k_eckman

Monarch butterfly orange and black warning coloration stands out on any background, but especially well on the purple blazing star. Photo by Karen Eckman

Some animals copy these bold aposomatic patterns, hoping to mimic the warning signal closely enough to avoid predation themselves.  Many insects copy the yellow and black warning coloration of bumblebees, hoping to fool a potential predator.

things that sting

The things that sting have bright yellow and black coloration; some have fuzzy hair and some don’t — even that pattern is copied.

things that don't sting

The mimics might even try to act like their models — hovering in front of flowers (hoverflies) or between perch sites (robberfly)

Some brightly colored fish purposely flaunt their colors to signal that they have a service to offer to others.


A brightly colored bluestreak cleaner wrasse hovers near the much larger and cryptically colored puffer fish to pick off parasites and extraneous food bits as a cleaning service.  Bright colors advertise the service at this “cleaning station”.  Photo from Wikipedia.

Bright colors in birds, especially the brightly colored plumes or other adornments projecting from their bodies, are a different kind of advertising.  By calling attention to themselves, colorful male birds are advertising their potential as a parent, or even just a sperm donor.  It’s as if they are saying to females, “I can survive in spite of attracting the attention of predators, or in spite of all these silly plumes that compromise by ability to escape, so choose me”.

Peacock_Flying-Wikipedia copy

A male peacock’s size may deter some predators, but all a predator has to do is grab hold of that long tail, and the advertisement becomes a liability.  Typically, the peahen raises the chicks, so all this male is advertising is his vigor (and sperm) as a potential mate.


Male Cardinals advertise more than just their vigor and ability to escape predation.

Bright colors mean the bird is in good health, and are an indication that these birds know where to find the food that makes them healthy, as well as brightly colored.  A female cardinal might choose one male over another for his ability to feed their chicks the right kind of food which, in turn, enhances their survival.  The female’s choosiness thus drives the male color pattern and feather adornments — sometimes to ridiculous or risky levels.  But if a flashy male survives the risks, then he’s the one.

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