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Does communication between predator and prey shape evolution?


An interesting essay argues that “From cobra to caterpillar, warning signals are a rich natural vocabulary shaped by the communicative dance of predator and prey”:

The cobra’s false eyes are a likely example of warning signals: adaptations that prey use to tell potential predators: ‘If you attack me, I promise things will go badly for you.’ Both predator and prey benefit from this message: the prey has the chance to avoid an attack, and the predator can make an informed decision about whether or not to risk pouncing on a well-defended meal.

The function of the cobra’s hood is intuitive, and squares nicely with how we often expect evolution to work. In fact, it’s so beautifully simple that it raises the question of why warning signals should evolve into such complex forms in the first place. A cobra could probably warn off predators with a much simpler design that’s less trouble to manufacture than its wide hood, eerily recognisable eyes, and even a definite ‘nose’ between the eyes. Instead, the cobra could have opted for just a bit of red around the neck, which other venomous snakes possess. After all, the function of warning signals depends on making it obvious to the predator that this potential piece of prey is not to be meddled with. So, anything that appears striking and unambiguous should do the trick – and if there are fewer complexities that could go awry during development, or be misinterpreted, so much the better. Why would natural selection favour the assemblage of the complex genetic machinery needed for false eyes, or for that matter, the thousands of other complex signals we find in nature?

David Kikuchi, “Eyes in the dark” at Aeon

Fascinating info about snakes’ warning signals but the author ends up defending dumb Darwinism which, increasingly, complicates explanations. One must come up with a Darwinian explanation for things instead of just reporting and learning from them. Or asking what the information probability is, for this type of change.

In human camouflage, ambiguity and complexity are hugely important. A confused enemy who has to spend time thinking about the nature of the target will give the prey a better chance to learn the predator's movements. An attacker who veers away long before he gets into visual range doesn't give the prey a chance to spy on the attacker and predict his next move. polistra

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