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Danger in Disguise

When animals aren’t what they seem

I had a dramatic and painful introduction to “mimicry” as a little boy, when my Auntie Alice from Chislehurst in England had come over and I was eager to teach her what I had learned from my grandfather. We looked at the flowers in the Botanical Garden and she warned me of the many bees. Now came my time, I thought, and I told her that they weren’t really bees; that they only looked like bees and that in reality they were a kind of harmless fly. To prove my point -and to be a hero, I guess- I caught one like I had seen my grandfather do it……. and was promptly stung!

Well, my grandfather, of course, had been right and it was I, who had made the mistake. Late summer a large proportion of what looks like worker bees visiting flowers are, in fact, harmless drones or various species of fly and even a small moth, all resembling in looks and behaviour the stinging honey bees (or wasps known as “Yellow Jacks”) without themselves being able to deliver a sting or to do anything nasty. This kind of mimicry whereby a harmless species looks like a bad one is known as Batesian mimicry.

But why do so many stinging species like honey and bumble bees, wasps, hornets, etc. have yellow stripes on a dark background, a pattern that is recognized so widely and even occurs in some venomous spiders, snakes and the blue-ringed octopus? This is a case of Müllerian mimicry: one basic pattern only is exploited by poisonous and dangerous species so that predators needn’t learn to recognize and associate different patterns with different species. If, however, a species is too lethal and never allows an attacker to survive and to learn, what is the point? This is where Mertensian mimicry comes in, for it claims that highly toxic as well as totally harmless species both mimic a moderately dangerous or unpalatable species.

There is one type of mimicry known as “aggressive mimicry”. For example, the females of the North American firefly Photinus attract with their lights males of their own species, but the females of a predatory and much bigger firefly named Photuris use the same photic signal as Photinus when males of the latter are around and sneakily attract the unsuspecting sex-seeking males to devour them!

The oceans aren’t free from aggressive mimicry either for in addition, to the beneficial “cleaner fish”, like for example, Labroides dimidiatus, which is tolerated by bigger fish to remove parasite from their gills and mouth cavity, there is the look-alike Aspidontes taeniatus that instead of performing a cleaning function takes bites out of the hosts’s skin and flesh and then darts away. The saying “wolf in a sheep’s skin” describes the phenomenon of aggressive mimicry very well. However, it is perhaps needless to say that the number of the mimics always has to be smaller than that of the model, for otherwise the deceit would fail to foil the fool.

winter stupid bees science

For more reading about cold stories, click here for “Is winter making us stupid?

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2017.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to V.B Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

2 thoughts on “Danger in Disguise

  1. Isn’t mimicry amazing?! Tom and I had a very similar story to yours recently. We were in countryside Vietnam and a flying insect landed in front of us. It was large wasp. Being insect-lovers, we took a closer look but it didn’t look quite right… It started to get ready to take off, but we still hadn’t had enough time to observe it. We were debating whether or not we should catch it to take a closer look before it flew off. It suddenly took off- I didn’t go for it, but Tom did. It was a wasp-mimic mantidfly! Lucky for Tom, haha. 😅😂

    -Emma

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