Ecological pharmacodynamics: prey toxin evolution depends on the physiological characteristics of predators

M.P. Speed, G.D. Ruxton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


The use of toxic chemical defences to repel and deter predators is widespread across living organisms, yet there are surprisingly few formal models of toxin evolution. Published models tend to focus on a trade-off between individual benefits and costs of toxicity, and treat predators as simple agents of selection, reducing future attacks when they encounter toxic prey. In this paper we argue, however, that the physiological characteristics of predators may be crucial in determining the nature and outcomes of toxin evolution. To examine this idea we devised and explored a model in which prey defence evolves in the context of predator physiology. We represented this as dose-effect relationships in predators for nutrition and toxins along with variable rates of predator metabolism. Incorporating variables of predator physiology can change views of toxin evolution. A key point is that inclusion of predator physiological variables requires that the nutritional value of prey is explicitly represented in the model, and this directly affects predictions for toxin evolution. In our model costly toxins generally evolve to the point that they are 'minimally unprofitable': just toxic enough to make prey typically unprofitable given their nutritional value to predators. As the nutritional value of prey increases, so the minimally unprofitable toxin level of prey tends to increase in step; hence another general prediction from this model is that toxin levels within prey should often correlate with the nutritional value of the prey. Predator physiology and cognition also contribute to variation in the social nature of defence. We argue that incorporating representations of predator physiology is important in the comprehension of toxin evolution and make suggestions for directions of future work.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)53-67
Number of pages15
JournalAnimal Behaviour
Early online date23 Oct 2014
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2014


  • Chemical defence
  • Decision making
  • Diet breadth
  • Predator–prey
  • Taste rejection


Dive into the research topics of 'Ecological pharmacodynamics: prey toxin evolution depends on the physiological characteristics of predators'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this