Can we say that Mullerian mimicry allows two species to decrease their number of sacrifice individuals because:

  1. Originally, one species needs to sacrifice some individuals to allow predators to recognize the warning signals (e.g., 10% of the population);

  2. Another species, with a different set of warning signals, would also need this same population sacrifice (i.e., 10%);

  3. Now, is the benefit of mimicry that, when two species share the same warning signals, each of those two species only loses half of the otherwise sacrificed number of individuals (i.e., 5% in the example)?


What is Müllerian mimicry?

Proposed by Fritz Müller, is when two or more species, which are both unpleasant to eat, poisonous, toxic, harmful etc. have similar colouration and patterns. A key point to note is that they have common (shared) predators. A classic example is the Heliconius genus of butterfly.

Why does it evolve?

The argument you make is kind of along the right lines, but it is a group selection argument, and is worded slightly badly as it insinuates that evolution is a goal driven process. I will use a toy example/thought experiment to explain why it's evolution is adaptive.

In this example there are three species of butterfly are toxic. We will call these species Butterfly-1, Butterfly-2, and Butterfly-3 (yeah, I'm not feeling very creative today). We also have a predator, a bird which likes to eat butterflies. We will call this species Bird.

Butterfly-1 and Butterfly-2 are very different to look at; they have different colours, shapes, and patterns. An individual Bird then eats one of Butterfly-1 and becomes sick. That individual learns to avoid Butterfly-1. Our Bird is then hungry again, and eats Butterfly-2, and again gets sick, and learns to avoid Butterfly-2. Two individuals die before Bird can learn to avoid both species.

Butterfly-1 and Butterfly-3 are very similar in appearance; they have similar colours, shapes, and patterns. An individual Bird then eats one of Butterfly-1 and becomes sick. That individual learns to avoid Butterfly-1, but also to avoid the similar looking species Butterfly-3. Likewise, if it eats a Butterfly-3 then it learns to avoid both Butterfly-1 and Butterfly-3. This is Müllerian mimicry. Survival is higher in one or both species because of more rapid learning by predators, fewer individuals will die compared to the non-mimicry scenario.

The essence of this is captured in the following statement from this paper:

"Müller provided what could well be the first formal mathematical model to support an evolutionary hypothesis. Following Müller’s original argument (1879), let $a_1$ and $a_2$ be the numbers of two approximately equally unpalatable (or otherwise defended) species in some definite district during one summer, and let $n$ be the number of individuals of each distinct unpalatable species that are killed by predators during a season before their distastefulness is generally known. If the species are distinct in appearance, then each species would lose $n$ individuals in the course of educating predators. If, however, the two species were exactly alike in appearance, then the first species would lose only $a_1n/(a_1+a_2)$ and the second would lose only $a_2n/(a_1+a_2)$. Under these conditions, a mimetic mutant of species 1 that perfectly resembled species 2 would tend to spread from extreme rarity"

  • Note that there may be caveats and complexities which I haven't discussed, this is a simplification to try and explain the general reasoning
  • $\begingroup$ I agree the wording issue; in the linked paper they talk populations, not species-level. +1 $\endgroup$ – AliceD Mar 14 '16 at 12:12
  • $\begingroup$ Is there a model that tries to simulate this? Although it seems obvious as the OP also noted, a mathematical (dynamical) model would provide a better explanation. I can see a mathematical expression. If possible can you add the full model description? $\endgroup$ – WYSIWYG Mar 16 '16 at 8:12

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