I’m Allen, the associate curator of entomology at the Nature Museum. That means I work very closely with butterflies, bees, and other insects! My favorite part of Halloween is the creative and elaborate costumes. For us Halloween costumes are fun or spooky, but for many animals their life depends on their ability to look like something else. That’s mimicry in its simplest form, when a living thing resembles something else. Animals can do this in many different ways, and insects are experts at it. Let’s break down a few different types of mimicry insects engage in.
This is the classic form of mimicry where an animal that is poorly defended looks like a different animal that is well defended. For example, hover flies can convincingly resemble bees and wasps. Many bees and wasps display a characteristic black and yellow banding pattern that warns predators to keep away or risk getting stung. Hover flies on the other hand do not have stingers, but by using the same black and yellow warning pattern they can trick predators into avoiding them.
This type of mimicry occurs when two different well defended animals resemble each other. Monarch and viceroy butterflies are a great example. Both types of butterflies are unpalatable to predators because of the noxious chemicals they store in their bodies from the host plants they eat as a caterpillar—milkweed for monarchs and willow for viceroys. By sharing a color pattern, after a naïve bird eats either butterfly and gets sick they will learn to avoid that orange and black pattern and both species are protected.
Sometimes an animal’s best defense is to look like an inanimate object. There are insects that resemble leaves, thorns, and sticks among other objects which helps them hide from danger. Some katydids exhibit a striking example of homotypism resembling a leaf. Their elaborate wing veins complete the effect, perfectly mimicking the veins of a leaf.
Like the name implies automimicry is when an animal mimics itself or its own species. One form can occur when a part of the animal’s body looks like another part of its body. Monarch caterpillars have tentacles on the front of their bodies that help them feel around their surroundings. They have a second pair of tentacles on the back that can confuse small predators so they don’t know which end of the caterpillar is the head and which is the back, giving them a chance to escape if attacked.
This type flips mimicry on its head by helping predators capture their prey. A common form is when the predator resembles its prey. There are spiders that resemble ants which allows them to get within striking distance undetected, and lady bug larvae with waxy coatings to blend in with their mealybug prey and avoid detection by the ants that sometimes farm them for the sweet honeydew they produce.
Mimicry isn’t limited to insects and their kin, our very own Patsy the alligator snapping turtle displays another form of aggressive mimicry involving lures. Patsy’s tongue resembles a worm wiggling worm which attracts fish to her open mouth.
We’ve just scratched the surface on a few different kinds of mimicry. There’s also more to it than meets the eye. Some animals can mimic sounds, smells, and even behaviors! What questions do you have about mimicry? Use the comments below to share them with us.