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Insect Mimicry & Camouflage

Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

If you are an insect chances are that someone is looking to have you for dinner, and not as their guest! How do you avoid being eaten? You might consider camouflage or mimicry to help you live another day.

Tricks of the Trade

I was watching a crime thriller movie the other night and I was really impressed with the tactics the criminals were using for their heist. It mostly involved costumes and various outfits for different purposes. For example, in one instance the crooks were sneaking around in all black clothing in order to blend in with the night. In another scene, they were dressed as elite socialites and mingling with others at the party.

And it was these two scenes that got me thinking about animals, especially insects, and how they often do similar things. Ok, I don't mean get dressed up and go to a party. But they do find ways to camouflage or blend in with their environment, as well as imitate other animals with mimicry. These can both mean life or death for an insect so they are very important concepts to understand. Let's look at each a little more closely.

Camouflage

Let's start with camouflage. Just like our crooks wanted to blend in with the dark night, insects often want to blend in with their surrounding environment. They do this to avoid predation. The logic here is: if you can't see me, you can't eat me!

These bugs are well camouflaged because they look like twigs.
stick bugs

Camouflage may be as simple as dark coloring but it can also be very elaborate. Some insects have stripes, spots, or other patterns that make them look like leaves, rocks, tree bark, and all sorts of other things. The better they blend in with their environment the less likely they are to become someone's dinner!

This insect will blend in well with a bright green leaf.
leaf insect

For example, have you seen a stick bug? It literally looks like a stick so that it can blend in. And then there's the Katydid that looks like a giant leaf. The dead leaf mantis looks like, well, dead leaves, and the peppered moth looks like tree bark.

Can you even see the insect in this image?
camouflaged mantis

Mimicry

Mimicry is also about not being eaten but it's a little different. Here, instead of trying to blend in to the surrounding environment the insect is mimicking or trying to look like something else. Just like our criminals pretended to be other people at the party, insects pretend to be other animals to ward off potential predators.

There are three main types of insect mimicry, Batesian, Müllerian, and self. Batesian mimicry involves a non-harmful insect mimicking a harmful insect. For example, when a non-bee insect (like the robber fly) looks like an actual bee. Bees sting! So predators know to stay away from them. But what if you don't sting? A good option might be to look like a stinging insect so that predators leave you alone, too.

Müllerian mimicry is when two or more insects that are all dangerous look alike. The idea here is that if a predator learns not to eat one dangerous insect it will learn to not eat all dangerous insects that look like it. A good example of this is seen with the monarch and viceroy butterflies. Both are unpalatable, and both look like the other. If you are a bird and you eat either one of these you will avoid both in the future. So while both types of butterflies may have to sacrifice a few for the cause, they both also get a boost in protection.

The viceroy butterfly on the left looks incredibly similar to the monarch on the right. Both are unpalatable.
mullerian mimicry, viceroy and monarch butterflies

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