Warning signals are expected to evolve towards conspicuousness and monomorphism, and thereby hamper the evolution of multiple colour morphs. Here, we test fitness responses to different rearing densities to explain colour polymorphism in aposematic wood tiger moth (Parasemia plantaginis) males.
We used larval lines sired by white or yellow adult males selected for small or large melanization patterns of coloration. We reared these selected lines either solitarily (favourable conditions) or in aggregations (challenged conditions), and followed their performance to adult stage. We tested whether differences in larval density affected life-history traits, adult melanin expression, adult morph (white or yellow) survival and immunological responses.
We found that the aggregated environment increased mortality of larvae, but decreased larval developmental time and pupa weight. Adult wing melanin pigmentation was dependent on larval melanin expression but not rearing density. We also confirmed that adult wing coloration had a genetic basis (h2 = 0·42) and was not influenced by larval growth density. Adult yellow males survived better from aggregations in comparison with white males, which may be related to differences in immune defence. White males had better encapsulation ability, whereas yellow males had increased lytic activity of haemolymph in the aggregations.
Our main results highlight, that morph-linked immune responses mediated by differential growth density may facilitate the maintenance of colour polymorphism in aposematic species. In nature, risk of diseases and parasites vary spatially and temporally. Therefore, both yellow and white adult morphs can be maintained due to their differential investment in immune defence in heterogeneous environments.