Birds beware the little ladybird

There's more to ladybirds than you may think.
There's more to ladybirds than you may think.

"I'M bright red and I taste foul" is the message behind the colour and ladybird's spots.

To humans they might be pretty and small, the inspiration for nursery rhymes and children's clothing, but the redder the ladybird, the worse it tastes to the bird which tries to eat it, an international research team, including Dr John Endler from Deakin University has found.

"While ladybirds are a friend to the gardener, in that they prey on pests that attack plants such as aphids, they are also attractive to birds who use them as food source," Dr Endler said.

"As such they are known as a prey species and they use their spots and colour to warn off birds and other predators to find an easier meal.

"However as our research showed, not all lady birds are born equal, some are less tasty than others and the key to the difference is in their colour."

Dr Endler, who has a passionate interest in understanding the link between colouration and warnings in wildlife literally took a bird's eye view for the research project.

He examined how the different ladybird colourings and contrasts would look through the eye of a starling.

"While we can't always notice the difference in the colour or the spots on a ladybird, a bird or predator can," he said.

"Our results showed a starling would be able to discriminate between the colour and spot variations in the ladybird.

"This information coupled with our findings that the brighter the ladybird the more toxic it is, indicates the redder ladybird has less chance of becoming a meal."

Dr Endler said ladybirds used a lot of energy to produce and maintain the bright colour and the bitter taste.

"What we also found was that access to a good diet influenced this potency in colour and toxicity.

"We also found the brighter the 'signal' or the red colour on the ladybird, the more effective the warning, in other words it honestly told predators this particular ladybird is not for the taking."

Dr Endler said while the result may seem small, much like the ladybird itself, it was interesting.


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Topics:  birds education insects lifestyle science wildlife

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