Many animals use mimicry to fool predators and prey into thinking they are something else, with insects putting on the best show in this regard. Tens of thousands of species of insects are not what they seem at first glance. But it’s not just bugs that do this.
So let’s look at a few examples and see what they’re up to and why. Recently, in my yard, Walking Sticks have been evident. They are fairly large insects that reach lengths of 10 cm in our area, but over 33 cm in places like Malaysia! They do look almost exactly like sticks, with a long thin wood-coloured body and spindly legs. They very slowly maneuver through the foliage, searching for tasty plants on which to feed. Since they mimic small sticks in appearance, they are hard to see and use this as a survival mechanism.
Cleverly they lay eggs that look like seeds but contain a material called capitulum, which is attractive to various species of ants. The ants take the egg, thinking it is a seed, eat the capitulum and discard the rest of the egg at the bottom of their nest, thus protecting the egg from outside parasites or predators.
One of the best mimics that is much easier to see is the Viceroy Butterfly. This is a tiny version of a Monarch Butterfly, which many predators avoid because of its unpleasant taste. So why not look like a critter that bothers your palate? Good idea – it seems as many animals avoid the Viceroy and look for a tastier meal.
Many butterflies also use a different form of mimicry to hide. The Morphos butterflies of the tropics are large, beautiful, iridescent blue insects, evident as they ‘flop’ through the forest’s understory. But as they land, they show the underside of the wing and instantly disappear. How does this happen? Well, while the upper wing is bright blue, the underwing looks like a brown dried-up old leaf.
The Northern Pygmy Owl is a diminutive species of the southwest USA. From the front, it looks like a typical owl, small round face and big bright eyes. However, looking at the back of its head, we see something odd, it has another face, complete with eyes and a beak. While the back face is fake; it’s simply feathers coloured and arranged to look like a face. Predators don’t like being spotted by their prey, so in this case, the fake face fools the predator into thinking the owl is watching it, and it seeks less attentive prey.
Opossums are common species moving into Ontario in increasing numbers. They forage and scavenge mostly at night, but they too have an adaptation which is odd. When threatened, they mimic a dead animal by basically just rolling over and not moving. Even persistent prodding by a predator doesn’t result in them fleeing. Most predators don’t eat carrion, so this ‘dead’ carcass is not palatable to them.
Even some plants use mimicry to fool prey. The Rafflesia is a gorgeous, smelly, Malaysian plant. It produces a scent which smells like rotting flesh (don’t get this for your lover on Valentine’s Day!). But why would it do that? The smelly concoction attracts flies which seek out rotten meat to lay their eggs. Thinking this is the perfect ‘carcass’, the flies drop into the cup-shaped flower, lay their eggs, and inadvertently pollinate it. The Rafflesia grows in dark forest environments and pollinators are scarce, so this mechanism ensures fertilization.
Coral snakes are highly venomous snakes of Central and South America. Brightly patterned in black, red and yellow, many other animals recognize them as dangerous and flee. The similar-looking King Snake has developed to mimic the colours of the Coral Snake but is not venomous. Clever!
Take a look around nature, and you will find many examples of mimicry, usually designed to protect prey species from predators, but as you can see, it can also be used by some to fool prey and ensure a tasty meal.
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff online at LinkedIn and Facebook.