They say imitation is a form of flattery but, for some, it’s a means of survival. All throughout the animal and plant world, we find organisms pretending to be something they’re not. Some take on the looks of other organisms or objects to scare off or hide from predators. Others are known to imitate different species to lure in prey. This is known as mimicry. This complex tactic is widely used by amphibians, snakes, insects, and spiny plants.
Defensive mimicry is used to protect against predators.
Predators tend to avoid eating prey that they’ve had unpleasant experiences with. So, it can be beneficial to put on a disguise that makes a predator confuse you with another species they are actively avoiding.
With Batesian mimicry, a creature displays warning signals or characteristics of a more dangerous or distasteful species in the hopes that potential predators will pass them by. For example, some types of hover flies (including drone flies) mimic the appearance and movement of bees. Because they cannot sting, these flies rely on masquerading as an insect that can sting to keep safe from predators.
Moths appear to be the experts in Batesian mimicry. There are moth species that mimic the appearance of owls, wasps, dead leaves, and more. Hummingbird moths, which are found all throughout the U.S., not only mimic the body shape of a hummingbird, but also move like one and can produce a similar humming sound.
Mullerian mimicry occurs when two or more species share similar anti-predator characteristics and co-mimic each other. Both species benefit because predators learn to avoid them all. A primary example of this type of mimicry appears in the monarch butterfly and the viceroy butterfly. Monarch butterflies are common in the western United States and their range overlaps with that of the viceroy butterfly. The two species have very similar markings, with only subtle differences on the wings. At first, scientists thought the viceroy butterfly exhibited Batesian mimicry by imitating the monarch butterfly, which is toxic to animals that eat it. Once scientists learned the viceroy is also distasteful to predators, it became Mullerian mimicry because both butterflies benefit from having a similar appearance.
Aggressive mimicry is a tactic to lure in prey.
Not all mimicry is defensive. Sometimes a disguise is used to appear harmless to potential prey. This tactic extends beyond typical camouflage to take on the look of a harmless creature or object. Biologists have referred to this strategy as being “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
The zone-tailed hawk, a raptor found in the southwestern U.S., displays aggressive mimicry tactics. It looks and flies like the harmless turkey vulture. The hawk benefits from appearing like a non-threatening species since its prey assume they don’t need to be on high alert when it is nearby.
Aggressive mimicry isn’t limited to physical appearance. Some animals, like the margay (a wild cat), display vocal mimicry, imitating the sound of the prey they are hunting in order to draw it closer to them.
Adaptation is key to survival.
Mimicry is just one form of the incredible adaptations that plants and animals have to navigate the world. Over time, organisms are able to change their body parts, body markings, and behaviors to evade danger and obtain the resources they need. Sometimes the best strategy for staying safe is to play dress up!
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