It is a well-known fact that combination of black and yellow indicates danger or poisonousness.

In western society it seems obvious this comes from bees and wasps, but it seems like many tropical frogs use yellow and black. Black and yellow also indicates toxicity in some fish species and the order of the colors seems to communicate whether we see a harmless milk snake or a venomous coral snake.

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So which came first: the fear of black and yellow or the color of bees? Are there any studies about the color combinations effect on human brain? Is it learned or congenital?

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    $\begingroup$ I think it is more to do with contrast between Black and Yellow which is important that color itself. This contrast creates optic flow. Most of these organisms use change in optic flow for either navigation or predator detection. We use black and white gratings to scare zebra fish :P I am pretty sure they will invoke same response for Back and Yellow gratings. $\endgroup$
    – Dexter
    Oct 25, 2015 at 18:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Dexter Wow, that's a good point. You're right, gepards, panters or tigers also use this pattern. Yet I think I will stay with the claim, that it is just a product of sexual selection as it is evolutionary so disadvantageous. $\endgroup$
    – Probably
    Oct 25, 2015 at 18:53
  • $\begingroup$ Not only yellow and black, white and red is common as well... $\endgroup$
    – TanMath
    Oct 26, 2015 at 0:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Probably Could you explain why you think it might be sexual selection?? $\endgroup$
    – rg255
    Oct 26, 2015 at 10:13
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    $\begingroup$ I think you are perhaps misguided @probably - sexual selection often leads to extreme traits, but it is not the only cause of extreme traits. Fpr example: colour might act as a warning to predators which learn what is poisonous - predators will then not eat the brightly colored animals because they won't get benefit from doing so. For the same reason we see mimicry, non-poisonous species using the same conspicuous colours to make predators hesitate. $\endgroup$
    – rg255
    Oct 26, 2015 at 17:37

2 Answers 2


First of all, great question! What you describe here is known as aposematism. Aposematism is the adapation of warning signals against the predator. This word is used for any sound, coloring, and odor used as a warning signal. Of course, for this question the focus is color.

Honest indications

Animal coloration is usually an honest indication of their noxiousness. The brighter they are, the more noxious and toxic they are (http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/276/1658/871). In the linked article, there are many references one this positive correlation of toxicity of prey to predator and the brightness of the coloration. In the article they use mathematical models to support the mathemstical evidence. But one thing is for sure: bright colors do mean the prey is armed with defenses, whether the correlation is positive or not.

Why then is it black and yellow?

The conspicuousness of the coloration is very important because it is important to see from a far away distance. The reason colors like yellow and black are used is because (http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/279/1728/417):

— They provide high contrast against the background (e.g. red/yellow against green foliage), which promotes detection.

— They are resistant to shadows (which are rich in blue-UV), and to changes in illumination (e.g. black should not change during day, whereas white could become ‘pink’ at sunset and sunrise). Therefore, they provide a reliable signal under varied habitats and light conditions.

— Yellow/red and black has both high chromatic and luminance contrast.

— Such colours may allow distance-dependent camouflage if yellow/red and black ‘blend’ to an average colour that matches the background at a distance when predator vision is no longer sufficient to discriminate individual marking components.

— Such colours are distinctive from profitable species.

What about the combination of black and yellow?

In the same article, they mention that:

Many warningly coloured prey have markings comprising repeated pattern elements. Such arrangements in signal structure may increase redundancy in the signal but improve the likelihood that the strategic component will be detected by the receiver. In addition, repeated elements may be rare in many natural environments, thus increasing conspicuousness of the prey animal. Simple pattern components (such as stripes and spots) may facilitate detection and also speed up avoidance learning if they are easier to memorize.

The research seem to show that the patterns, such as the stripes, lead to increased avoidance, but it is not sure whether or not it is due to the stripes itself or due to the constrast of the black and yellow.

I hope I have answered your question and if you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments.

  • $\begingroup$ @TannMath Thanks! Do you think that the fact leopards, tigers and cheetahs use also black and yellow is a coincidence caused by sexual selection? $\endgroup$
    – Probably
    Oct 26, 2015 at 6:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Probably well this research was done mainly for prey animals... the main hypothesis for leopards and tigers is that it allows them to hid in their environment better, allowing them to pounce on their prey $\endgroup$
    – TanMath
    Oct 26, 2015 at 6:24

Sorry for the late response.... I think the short answer is Game Theory. Obviously any colour scheme could in principle be used to signal toxicity. However, if a scheme was chosen that did not stand out it would not be an Evolutionary Stable Strategy (ESS).

Let's take an example. Suppose a poisonous insect was coloured with green and brown markings. This is good camouflage since green is the colour of chlorophyll and brown the colour of mud. Therefore there would be zero downside to a non-poisonous species to mimic the markings of the poisonous species. Eventually individuals from the non-poisonous species with the markings would massively outnumber individuals from the poisonous species, and brave predators would start eating insects with those markings. If, on the other hand, the poisonous species chose a colour scheme that made it stick out, there would be a cost associated with mimicry, and in the Nash equilibrium the proportion of species that mimic the markings would be smaller.

In game theory any signalling without an associated cost is known as "cheap talk". An example is where you go to an auction and before the bidding starts you go around telling everyone "I have a lot of money and I really want this item". No one will believe you because, well, you would have said that wouldn't you! However, if before the bidding starts you pull out a Havana cigar and light it with a $100 note, that's not cheap talk, and will probably cause a number of your competitors to quietly back off.

  • $\begingroup$ PS: I highly recommend the book "Game Theory: A Very Short Introduction". Although the example I've given isn't in the book, the book does contain lots of other successful applications of game theory to biology. In fact GT is probably more successful in biology than in economics. $\endgroup$ Nov 4, 2019 at 14:54

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