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Mullerian Mimicry: Definition & Examples

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Instructor: Derrick Arrington

Derrick has taught biology and chemistry at both the high school and college level. He has a master's degree in science education.

In nature, many animals have evolved to have warning colorations. In this lesson, we will learn more about why this is and also explore a type of coloration known as Mullerian mimicry.

Definition of Mullerian Mimicry

What do you think of when you see a brightly colored insect or animal? Although the markings might be pretty or unusual, your instinct might be to stay away from these creatures (just think of your reaction to the yellow jacket of a bumblebee!) These colorations are often designed to protect animals from the dangers around them.

As humans, when we see signs in bright yellow or red, our minds instinctively tell us to pay attention, stop, or think with caution. Insects and other animals with bright colors or certain patterns use this same idea to their advantage to warn those that might harm them.

Mullerian mimicry occurs in nature when two or more harmful species look very similar in order to ward off potential predators. This is very advantageous to animals as a means of protection. If animals that resemble one another are all known to be poisonous or dangerous, they will have a significant advantage because predators will quickly learn to avoid them.

Examples of Mullerian Mimicry

One common example of Mullerian mimicry can be seen in species of butterflies. H. erato and H. melpomene are two different species of butterflies that exhibit Mullerian mimicry. Both of them have evolved to have mostly black bodies and wings, but they have a similar pattern of red-orange dots and markings on their wings.

Both of these species of butterflies have a taste that is very undesirable to predators. Their bad taste is derived from the food that their caterpillar form eats before they undergo metamorphosis and become butterflies. Since both of these species have the same bad taste, most predators will need to only try one to learn to avoid the other. If you have ever eaten at a restaurant and had a bad meal and decided to avoid the restaurant altogether, it would be similar to predators avoiding all butterflies that have this coloration.

All of these butterflies of the genus Heliconius use Mullerian mimicry.
Image of butterflies that exhibit Mullerian mimicry

Another example of Mullerian mimicry can be found in the poison dart frogs of South America and Madagascar. Poison frogs of the Dendrobates genus are known to secrete poison onto their skin as a means of protection. The poison is produced and derived from insects consumed in their native habitats.

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