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Keywords:

  • anti-predator traits;
  • aposematism;
  • mimicry;
  • warning signals;
  • within-population variability

We consider the neglected question of how secondary defences of prey animals evolve if they are discontinuous in nature, being either present or absent, or expressible over a limited number of levels. We present a novel computer model that evaluates the conditions in which defended mutant prey may (1) fail to rise above nontrivial levels within a population, (2) reach values close to fixation, or (3) find some evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS) frequency between these two situations. Undefended prey that coexist with defended conspecifics are known as automimics. One finding is that automimicry can be an ESS over a range of conditions, but especially when prey are relatively cryptic and secondary defences are very effective at deterring predation. Evolutionarily stable automimicry emerges from the interplay between the direct benefits of costly defences in surviving individual attacks by predators and frequency-dependent benefits conferred on all prey, from a reduction in the rate of attack on all identical-looking prey. When, in contrast, secondary defences have continuous variation, the result is effectively a monomorphic state of defence across the population. Thus the degree and kind of variation that a defence takes has a profound effect on its initial evolution. We discuss the interesting possibility that mixed ESSs may help explain some examples of variation in prey secondary defences. © 2006 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2006, 87, 393–402.