BBC Earth newsletter
BBC Earth delivered direct to your inbox
Sign up to receive news, updates and exclusives from BBC Earth and related content from BBC Studios by email.
What survival options exist for those in the animal kingdom who don’t have the gift of speed or the skill of camouflage?
You may be familiar with the adage ‘fake it til’ you make it.’ But long before this saying became a self-help staple, it’s been a technique deployed by the master mimics of our natural world. Whether it’s to escape a predator or lure in prey, animals and insects have found ingenious ways to survive by emulating the sounds, looks, or behaviours of other species around them.
This wild cat native to the Americas was discovered1 using ‘psychological cunning’ to entice prey. The tree ocelot, otherwise known as the margay, was found imitating the call of a baby pied tamarin monkey. Yep, you read that right. This is a wild cat that copies a monkey.
Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society and UFAM (Federal University of Amazonas) observed a tree ocelot in Brazil imitating the squeal of the baby monkeys in a cunning attempt to attract adult monkeys feeding nearby.
This form of ‘aggressive’ mimicry, or imitation,2 is enacted by the tree ocelot in the hope of ensnaring adult monkeys within striking range. Unfortunately, as observed by scientists, in this instance the pretend squeals didn’t end in success. While the fake cries were enough to attract the attention of adult monkeys nearby, the ruse was quickly realised. The pied tamarin monkeys then sounded the alarm for others to flee before the cat had a chance to pounce. Bad luck.
It was initially believed that the harmless Viceroy butterfly mimicked the bright, flashy colours of the monarch butterfly to ward off predators. The bright orange and black look of the monarch is a warning to predators that they are toxic, and researchers initially suggested that the outward similarities between monarch’s and viceroy’s was an example of something called Batesian mimicry. Named after English naturalist Henry Walter Bates, this is a form of mimicry in which a harmless species evolves to mimic the warning signs of a harmful species.
However, scientists later discovered3 that the Viceroy butterflies are, in fact, also toxic. A study tested the palatability of both butterflies by feeding birds their wingless abdomens, and discovered that neither butterfly appealed to the bird's palate. Rather than this being a case of Batesian mimicry, instead it’s an example of something called Mullerian mimicry, in which two or more noxious organisms resemble each other’s warning signals to their mutual benefit.
In other words, strength comes in numbers and a greater abundance of similar looking toxic species will teach predators more quickly that they are not to be preyed upon!
If you thought shapeshifting was just a thing of science fiction, then think again. Discovered as recently as 1998 off the coast of Sulawesi, Indonesia, the mimic octopus is unusual because unlike most other mimics who stick to impersonating one other species, this cephalopod impersonates multiple.4
In an attempt to foil would-be predators, the mimic octopus takes on the appearance and behaviours of jellyfish, crabs, sea snakes, shrimps, and lionfish - just to name a few. When exposed in open waters the mimic octopus spreads out its arms and resembles the brown and white striped colouring of the venomous lionfish. And when attacked by damselfish, they tuck in six of their arms and stick out the other two in opposite directions to appear like a venomous banded sea-snake. Still think shapeshifting is the stuff of fiction?
They’re known for their extravagant courtship techniques involving a spectacular plumage display and dancing. But while these manoeuvres may be enough to attract the attention of a female, further tactics may be required to secure a mate. The male superb lyrebird therefore resorts to a more unpalatable technique: lying.
These birds are known to be able to imitate the calls of more than 20 other species in their local environment, and in certain courtship situations, they imitate the mobbing alarm calls of multiple species.
Researchers from Australia found that the male superb lyrebird would not only mimic the distressed sounds of multiple species, but they’d also enhance the illusion by imitating the sounds of small birds’ wingbeats.5 They pulled this trick only when females attempted to exit male display arenas or during the long copulation period. This Machiavellian mimicry aims to prevent females from prematurely leaving.
These prehistoric-looking reptiles don’t even need to move to catch their prey. Which is perhaps fortunate as, unlike other species of snapping turtle, this one has eyes on the side of its head and is also the largest species of freshwater turtle.
To catch prey, alligator snapping turtles lie at the bottom of a riverbed and open their mouths. Sounds too easy, right?
But that easy it is. Fortunately for these reptiles, they have an appendage on their tongue that they move back and forth to resemble a worm. Unsuspecting fish will swim towards what they consider to be their prey only to become, well, prey.
Away from water on land, another animal deploys the sit-and-wait technique.
This time it’s the deadly South African puff adder.
Like the Alligator snapping turtle, the South African puff adder also uses its tongue to mimic an invertebrate and lure prey in closer. But they don’t just use their tongue. These reptiles also wave their tails to mimic worms or caterpillars. And studies suggest that tongue luring happens only in response to the presence of frogs, suggesting that puff adders can visually discriminate between amphibians and other animals.6
The spicebush swallowtail caterpillar practices the art of mimicry over multiple life stages.
In their early caterpillar stage, the spicebush swallowtail is dark brown with streaks of white, resembling bird droppings! Unsurprisingly, birds don’t want to eat them.
In the final caterpillar stage, they trick birds into thinking they are snakes. This is achieved by the growth of yellow and black rings that resemble big eyes. And then when the caterpillar senses a bird nearby, they inflate the front part of their body, creating the illusion of a snake tongue. It’s a clever and fierce technique for such a tiny creature, and they’re not alone amongst caterpillars in mimicking snakes. The hawk moth caterpillar also puts up a convincing disguise as a tiny pit viper!7
The female photoris fireflies are the femme fatales of the insect world, luring in male fireflies to murder and eat them.
For fireflies, luminescent flashing (the result of a chemical reaction in fireflies bodies that allows them to light up) is the language of love.8 Chemical ecologists at Cornell discovered that female photuris fireflies mimic the mating flashes of the female Photinus fireflies.9
They do this to attract an unsuspecting male photinus firefly. He draws closer expecting courtship, but instead ends up being eaten. Why? Because by eating the Photinus firefly, the Photoris firefly acquires his toxins, called lucibufagins. Without lucibufagins, Photuris fireflies are eaten by spiders. But with lucibufagins, hungry spiders reject them.
If ants were humans, they may have put a patent on their appearance a long time ago. There are more than 300 species of spiders that mimic the appearance of ants.10 One of them, myrmarachne formicaria, is a jumping spider that visually resembles these territorial creatures to avoid being preyed upon.
And the similarity doesn’t just stop at looks. One study found that not only do these eight-legged spiders look like their six-legged models, but they walk like them too.11 The jumping spiders move backwards and forwards in a way that emulates an ant following a trail, and they take the deception even further by taking spaced out pauses to raise their forelimbs, creating the illusion of an antennae!
Our final charlatan on the list is the bluestriped fangblenny, another rare mimic of multiple disguises. Most visual mimicries in vertebrates are a permanent state, but like our earlier con artist the mimic octopus the blue striped fangblenny can also oscillate between different disguises.12
The fangblenny’s model of choice is the bluestreak cleaner wrasse, a diligent fish that provides a cleaning service to reef visitors by picking off parasites and mucus. The fangblenny can switch to have a black body and electric blue stripe that resembles the wrasse. But instead of cleaning other fishes, the fangblenny uses this disguise to bite off the scales and skin of larger fish.
Then, when the job is done, they are able at will to change their body colour to brown, olive, or orange with lighter-coloured stripes. While the physiological basis of these colour changes isn’t fully understood, it is believed that the fangblennies switch to these other non-mimetic colours to conceal themselves among fish shoals and to strike at passing fish.
So next time you stumble across what you think is a tiny snake or what appears to be the sound of a baby monkey, perhaps look and listen a little harder. Humans have been mastering the skills of deception for centuries, but as with all great deceptions, they exist in the places you least expect them.
Featured image © Joe McDonald I Getty
1. Tree ocelot psychological cunning, 2. Mimicry, 3. Toxicity of viceroy butterflies, 4. Mimic octopus disguise tactics, 5. Male superb lyrebird mimic tactics, 6. Tongue luring techniques of South African puff adder, 7. Hawk moth caterpillar disguises itself as tiny pit viper, 8. Luminescent flashing in fireflies, 9. Female photuris fireflies mimic tactics, 10. Over 300 species of spiders mimic the appearance of ants, 11. How myrmarachne formicaria walk, 12. The blue striped fangblenny disguise tactics