Defense Mechanisms Against Predation and Herbivory

Photo a shows the long, sharp thorns of a honey locust tree. Photo b shows a turtle perched on a log, and has its long neck and head extending out from its large shell. Photo c shows the pink, bell-shaped flowers of a foxglove. Photo d shows a millipede curled into a ball.
The (a) honey locust tree (Gleditsia triacanthos) uses thorns, a mechanical defense, against herbivores, while the (b) Florida red-bellied turtle (Pseudemys nelsoni) uses its shell as a mechanical defense against predators. (c) Foxglove (Digitalis sp.) uses a chemical defense: toxins produced by the plant can cause nausea, vomiting, hallucinations, convulsions, or death when consumed. (d) The North American millipede (Narceus americanus) uses both mechanical and chemical defenses: when threatened, the millipede curls into a defensive ball and produces a noxious substance that irritates eyes and skin. (credit a: modification of work by Huw Williams; credit b: modification of work by “JamieS93”/Flickr; credit c: modification of work by Philip Jägenstedt; credit d: modification of work by Cory Zanker)

OpenStax Biology 2e

The study of communities must consider evolutionary forces that act on the members of the various populations contained within it. Species are not static, but slowly changing and adapting to their environment by natural selection and other evolutionary forces. Species have evolved numerous mechanisms to escape predation and herbivory. These defenses may be mechanical, chemical, physical, or behavioral.

Mechanical defenses, such as the presence of thorns on plants or the hard shell on turtles, discourage animal predation and herbivory by causing physical pain to the predator or by physically preventing the predator from being able to eat the prey. Chemical defenses are produced by many animals as well as plants, such as the foxglove which is extremely toxic when eaten.

Many species use their body shape and coloration to avoid being detected by predators. The tropical walking stick is an insect with the coloration and body shape of a twig which makes it very hard to see when stationary against a background of real twigs. In another example, the chameleon can, within limitations, change its color to match its surroundings. Both of these are examples of camouflage, or avoiding detection by blending in with the background.

Photo a shows a green walking stick insect that resembles the stem on which it sits. Photo b shows a green chameleon that resembles a leaf.
(a) The tropical walking stick and (b) the chameleon use body shape and/or coloration to prevent detection by predators. (credit a: modification of work by Linda Tanner; credit b: modification of work by Frank Vassen)

Some species use coloration as a way of warning predators that they are not good to eat. For example, the cinnabar moth caterpillar, the fire-bellied toad, and many species of beetle have bright colors that warn of a foul taste, the presence of toxic chemicals, and/or the ability to sting or bite, respectively. Predators that ignore this coloration and eat the organisms will experience their unpleasant taste or presence of toxic chemicals and learn not to eat them in the future. This type of defensive mechanism is called aposematic coloration, or warning coloration.

Photo A shows a bright red frog sitting on a leaf. Photo B shows a skunk, whose body is covered in black fur, but has 2 prominent white stripes extending down its back and tail.
 (a) The strawberry poison dart frog (Oophaga pumilio) uses aposematic coloration to warn predators that it is toxic, while the (b) striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) uses aposematic coloration to warn predators of the unpleasant odor it produces. (credit a: modification of work by Jay Iwasaki; credit b: modification of work by Dan Dzurisin)

While some predators learn to avoid eating certain potential prey because of their coloration, other species have evolved mechanisms to mimic this coloration to avoid being eaten, even though they themselves may not be unpleasant to eat or contain toxic chemicals. In Batesian mimicry, a harmless species imitates the warning coloration of a harmful one. Assuming they share the same predators, this coloration then protects the harmless ones, even though they do not have the same level of physical or chemical defenses against predation as the organism they mimic. Many insect species mimic the coloration of wasps or bees, which are stinging, venomous insects, thereby discouraging predation.

Photos A and B show virtually identical looking insects.  Both have smooth black faces and legs, but their body is covered in a white fuzzy looking material.
Batesian mimicry occurs when a harmless species mimics the coloration of a harmful species, as is seen with the (a) bumblebee and (b) bee-like robber fly. (credit a, b: modification of work by Cory Zanker)

In Müllerian mimicry, multiple species share the same warning coloration, but all of them actually have defenses. In Emsleyan/Mertensian mimicry, a deadly prey mimics a less dangerous one, such as the venomous coral snake mimicking the nonvenomous milk snake. This type of mimicry is extremely rare and more difficult to understand than the previous two types. For this type of mimicry to work, it is essential that eating the milk snake has unpleasant but not fatal consequences. Then, these predators learn not to eat snakes with this coloration, protecting the coral snake as well. If the snake were fatal to the predator, there would be no opportunity for the predator to learn not to eat it, and the benefit for the less toxic species would disappear.

Photos show four pairs of butterflies that are virtually identical to one another in color and banding pattern.
Several unpleasant-tasting Heliconius butterfly species share a similar color pattern with better-tasting varieties, an example of Müllerian mimicry. (credit: Joron M, Papa R, Beltrán M, Chamberlain N, Mavárez J, et al.)


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:


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