Venomous insects have been copied by a range of “imposters,” which may be other insects, non-insect species or even plants. Motives include avoidance of predators, a bizarre pollination scam or an attempt to infiltrate gatherings of a prey species. Whatever the logic, “be yourself” is the antithesis of survival for these life forms.
10. The Bird that Looks like a Caterpillar
For a venomous insect to be effectively mimicked by another insect is plausible. But in the case of the creatively named orange caterpillar, the imposter is a bird. Native to Peruvian rainforests, the cinereous mourner is a tropical songbird which raises its chicks in open nests and frequently leaves them alone in a warm, food rich but otherwise hostile environment filled with experienced nest predators.
The gray birds begin their life as bizarre nestlings covered in bright, obvious orange feathers with special quill-like protrusions. These protrusions are effective in helping match the appearance of a toxic caterpillar which happens to be almost identical in size to a cinereous mourner chick. And if that weren’t enough, the young birds have an elongated body shape and creep around the nest in an exaggerated caterpillar like motion. Any predator looking at the nest sees a writhing, toxin laden bug that could be their last meal, rather than a vulnerable and tasty young bird.
9. Insect Mimicking Orchids
The ability of a plant to take on the appearance of an animal is a rare switch in a world where animals tend to mimic plants to blend in. In order to pass on their pollen, one flower mimic the females of certain wasp and bee species, which draw males looking to mate. These careless suitors mount the flowers, but instead get a load of pollen with which they will struggle before being scammed again and depositing the pollen on another flower. The flower is then pollinated, but there’s no contribution to the male’s reproductive success in the process.
8. Robber Fly
Insects and animals mimic venomous insects in order to look more intimidating, but in a more ingenious and aggressive twist, this mainstay of defensive mimicry has been turned around as a form of aggressive mimicry by the Florida Bee Killer Mallophora bomboide. Colored to match their specific prey species rather than to appear venomous, these robber flies infiltrate areas where bees gather and seize single, unsuspecting bees in lightning fast surprise attacks.
Their black and yellow hairs, together with the beelike hum produced in flight, allow them to get close enough to strike without being recognized. Among the largest and strongest flies, Mallophora kill with powerful legs that simply crush the bee against the enormous fly’s body. Discarded exoskeletons of the bees may be found near a robber fly’s hunting grounds. Beekeepers have reported losses to their activity, but normally no serious problems result from the fly’s presence.
7. Wasp Mimicking Longhorn Beetle
Wasps are the more formidable counterpart to bees, thanks to their ability to sting enemies repeatedly in defense. Wasps also capture live prey, in some cases using their stinger to assist in subduing the victim. It makes sense that wasps might become the subject of mimicry, including by a beetle. Native to England, Wales and parts of Scotland, the wasp beetle is a longhorn beetle that has developed both the coloring and the shape of a typical wasp. This animal is a completely harmless insect that makes its home in decaying woody material and bark.
Slow moving and likely quite palatable, the beetle would be a prime target for birds were it not for the misdirecting wasp markings that discourage attacks. Not only marked like a wasp, the wasp beetle has also taken on the specific movements of a wasp to complete the full mimicry of its venomous model species. The long horns and hard carapace distinguish the animal, but even humans could be fooled at first glance.
6. Aggressive Ant Mimicry
Imitating a formic acid bearing ant is a good strategy to encourage predators to leave an animal alone, but certain spiders from North America have more sinister intentions. In contrast to defensive mimics, aggressive ant mimicking spiders resemble ants and infiltrate groups of these dangerous prey animals before seizing one and injecting it with venom.
Being seen with a dead body of an ant might be a giveaway that the vulnerable spider is an ant killer, but a creepy trick allows the spider a chance to avoid attacks. Holding up the body of the prey, an ant mimicking spider uses the body as a shield against defending ants. Stranger yet, the spider may actually convince the other ants that it’s a member of the group carrying a dead nest mate away, as ants sometimes do. The lines between aggressive mimicry and defensive mimicry may sometimes be blurred, according to leading research into the behavior of these rather aberrant but marvelously adapted spiders.
5. The Marvelous Mimicry of Moths
Moths are the first to come to mind when truly defenseless insects are mentioned. Select moths have therefore come to mimic bees and wasps, among the most dangerous of insects, in order to gain protection under false pretenses. Except for their bright blue antenna, clearwing moths of North America appear to be extra-large and intimidating wasps. The slender appearance of these insects, combined with black and yellow body patterns and clear wings, bring the entire effect together to confuse even humans.
In contrast, the Orange Wasp Moth of open Australian habitats is large, with a broad wingspan and hefty body. The colors on this creature are even more vibrant, giving enough of an impression of risk to avert the attentions of even the most persistent predator. These moths are less likely to fool humans due to their distinctive moth shape, but predators are likely to fail to recognize the defensive mimicry.
4. Wasp Mantidfly
Few insects seem as far apart as a wasp, a lacewing and a praying mantis. However, the potential of convergent evolution to produce astounding examples of mimicry is strong. Found in certain North American habitats, the wasp mantid Climaciella brunnea is a lacewing with base brown colors but accented by bright yellow bands that make it look like a lanky wasp with praying mantis-like forearms.
In a bizarre parasitic relationship, the adult animal approaches wasp colonies and lays eggs that soon hatch into larvae that grab onto adult wasps in order to be distributed. This parasitic behavior isn’t particularly harmful, but it does add a weight burden to the flying wasps. This strange lacewing also has exceptional adaptations to aid it in hunting. With hooked front arms, the wasp mantid can capture other insects praying mantis fashion and make short work of such victims.
3. The Australian Spider that Mimics Golden Ants
Spiders may seem intimidating, but ants may be seen to pose a greater threat. This is evidenced by a small yellow spider from the Eucalyptus forests of Australia that exhibits subtle but distinctive evolutionary changes that transform it into what any reasonable person would recognize as an ant. The Myrmarachne jumping spiders engage in defensive mimicry, but come equipped with acidic venom that may be used on potential predators as well.
The spider not only resembles an ant, but walks in an antlike fashion and takes the mimicry one step further by waving its antenna. The creatures often associate loosely with real ants to add to the effectiveness of their disguise. While ants are unpalatable enough to warrant mimicry, a strange additional fact to consider is that certain predators can handle ants and may deliberately target them. Ant mimicking spider species have been known to “turn off” their mimicking behaviors and reveal themselves to be a spider in order to avert an attack by predators that would certainly prefer to tackle an ant rather than a spider.
2. Hoverfly Mimicry of Vespids and Bees
With a nearly worldwide distribution, hoverflies of many species take on the appearance of both wasps or bees to ward off the attention of predators. Adult hoverflies feed on nectar and pollen, while the young of certain species may add insect prey to their already mixed diet.
The hummingbirds of the bird world, hoverflies are already well defended against many predators thanks to their exceptional aerial agility and wing blurring flight. But that’s apparently not enough, and the hoverflies have adapted to look completely unpalatable and toxic to prevent an attack by a predator. There are downsides — some scientists have suggested that looking like a wasp may make a hoverfly more subject to persecution by humans.
1. The Scarab Beetle that Passes for a Bee
While beetles seemingly couldn’t be more different from bees, a fascinating scarab beetle native to North America matches the colors and even the shape of a bee. Right down to the position of the wings, this incredible arthropod has yellow fuzz on its abdomen that completes the perfect impression made by this highly evolved, defensive imposter.
The brightly colored flower scarab beetle Trichiotinus affinis appears as if it were a resident of dry land. Closely related to June bugs and other familiar beetles, this species is in fact found on purple iris stalks in wetlands. The harmless insect could be swiftly captured by blackbirds, predatory insects and other hunters, but the appearance of the insect is such a dead ringer for a bee that no predator is likely to tangle with it.
Christopher Stephens is a nature and content writer and the birding tour leader for Pacific Rainforest Adventure Tours. His customers have come from all over to see the birds of the Pacific Northwest.