Is the hibiscus harlequin bug aposematic? The importance of testing multiple predators


  • Scott A. Fabricant,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, North Ryde, NSW, Australia
    • Correspondence

      Scott A. Fabricant, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, North Ryde, NSW 2109, Australia. Tel: +61(02) 9850 6279; Fax: +61(02) 9850 8245; E-mail:

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  • Carolynn L. Smith

    1. Department of Environment and Geography, Macquarie University, North Ryde, NSW, Australia
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Aposematism involves predators learning conspicuous signals of defended prey. However, prey species utilize a wide range of chemical (or physical) defenses, which are not likely to be equally aversive to all predators. Aposematism may therefore only be effective against a physiologically sensitive subset of potential predators, and this can only be identified through behavioral testing. We studied the emerging model organism Tectocoris diophthalmus (Heteroptera: Scutelleridae), an aposematically colored but weakly defended shieldback stinkbug, to test the efficacy of its defenses against a suite of predator types. We predicted the bugs' defenses would be ineffectual against both experienced and naïve birds but aversive to predaceous insects. Surprisingly, the opposite pattern was found. Both habituated wild passerines and naïve chickens avoided the bugs, the chickens after only one or two encounters. To avian predators, T. diophthalmus is aposematic. However, praying mantids showed no repellency, aversion, or toxicity associated with adult or juvenile bugs after multiple trials. Comparison with prior studies on mantids using bugs with chemically similar but more concentrated defenses underscores the importance of dose in addition to chemical identity in the efficacy of chemical defenses. Our results also emphasize the importance of behavioral testing with multiple ecologically relevant predators to understand selective pressures shaping aposematic signals and chemical defenses.