Animal Trickery: When Looks Are Deceiving

It is almost Halloween! It’s a favorite time of year because for a day or a weekend, we get to pretend to be something we are not. Our costumes mimic our favorite monsters, villains, heroes and aliens. Sometimes our costumes may be so spectacular our friends may not even recognize us!

Is this a monarch or a viceroy butterfly? Their striking similarities make it difficult to tell them apart. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Some animals in nature pretend to be something they are not all the time as a way to protect them or gain advantages. This deceiving behavior is call mimicking.


An animal may mimic a sight, sound, smell or even vibration to trick or fool other critters. Camouflage may be considered a special kind of mimicking. It is when an animal blends in with its environment to not be noticed.


Let’s take a look at some other kinds of mimicking.


Müllerian mimicking

Monarch and viceroy butterflies look very similar, an example of Müllerian mimicry. (Monarch photo (left) courtesy of Barb Guyette. Viceroy photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Müllerian mimicry is when two or more unrelated species have similar warning systems, like bright coloring, to tell other creatures they are poisonous or dangerous. This type of mimicking is unusual because no one is being deceptive and all species benefit.


Many people think the viceroy butterfly is colored like a monarch to trick predators into thinking it is the poisonous monarch. But scientific studies have revealed that the viceroy is just as noxious as the monarch! (Noxious is another word for poisonous). Both butterflies benefit from their similar coloring and pattern. A bird can learn from either species that both taste awful.


Look at the pictures above. Can you spot differences between the two butterflies?


Batesian mimicry

Some species of flies look very similar to bees, an example of Batesian mimicry. (Photo by Suzy Lyttle)

These mimics are pretending to be something poisonous or dangerous to fool other predators when in fact they are truly harmless! Several species of flies mimic the coloring and sometimes even the buzzing of bees. Have they tricked you before? Look closely next time. Flies never have a stinger. Also, a fly’s compound eyes are so large they always touch in the center. Bees always have a space between their compound eyes. It is where the bee’s three simple eyes, called ocelli, are located.


Another famous example of a Batesian mimic is the king snake, which resembles the extremely venomous coral snake. Have you ever heard a version of the rhyme, “Red touches black, safe for Jack; red touches yellow kills a fellow?” This clever saying helps people remember which kinds of snakes are venomous.


Aggressive mimicry


Aggressive mimicry is when a critter deceives its prey by pretending to be something harmless. It is sometimes called Peckhamian mimicry. Instead of hunting, these animals trick their prey by pretending to be something the prey desires, like food or a mate.


Spiders have been proven to be pretty smart creatures. For instance, orb weavers can sense through vibrations what types of critters get caught in their webs. They are not interested in all of them, so they don’t waste their energy when they can sense it is something they do not want to eat.


Portia is a genus of jumping spiders that feeds on other spiders. These spiders don’t live in North America, but get this! Portia jumping spiders jump on an orb weaver spider’s web and mimic the vibration of a tasty insect. When the orb weaver approaches, thinking it has a delicious meal, it becomes dinner for the jumping spider.


What is more amazing is that the Portia spiders practice to perfect their mimicry. They try out different vibrations on webs and receive feedback from the orb weaver’s reaction. They then learn the best vibration to mimic to catch a meal.


Get inspired


So many cool and fascinating mimics exist in nature: caterpillars that look like bird droppings, flowers that look like female butterflies, fish that come with their own little baited hook. There is always more to know!


Keep a look out for more examples of these clever deceivers. Maybe you can mimic a mimicker for your Halloween costume this year. “Oh! What a cute little bee you are!” “Actually, I am a fly mimicking a bee!”