The Incredible Colors of Animals Mean Different Things, But We Just Found a Pattern

A male northern cardinal (left) and a strawberry poison dart frog (right). (Cardinal: Sandra J/500px/Getty Images; Frog: Shanelle Wikramanayake/iNaturalist, CC BY-NC 4.0)

Fashion in the animal realm, as stunning as it frequently appears, can be horribly monotonous. There are only a limited number of color schemes that stand out among the greys and greens of the surrounding vegetation and mud.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that animals frequently employ the same hues for disparate objectives.

In strawberry poison-dart frogs (Oophaga pumilio), a male’s beautiful red coloration is a stern warning to stay away should you consume a mouthful of a potent, lethal toxin. The brilliant red of a male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) serves as a signal for possible mates to get closer.

Zachary Emberts, an evolutionary biologist at Oklahoma State University, and John Wiens, a colleague from the University of Arizona, pondered how the same colors could have evolved to serve such disparate functions in other creatures.

They studied 1,824 species of land vertebrates, classifying their colour as either come-hither or get-lost, and discovered the link tying each group together (aquatic animals can be a completely different kettle of fish).

Birds and lizards are examples of come-hither animals that are descended from predecessors that were diurnal, or active during the day. The animals that become lost, including snakes and amphibians, are related to nocturnal ancestors.

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