Living of it. Animals don’t necessarily mimic

Living things have evolved some very unique and fascinating ways to trick predators and competitors. Mimicry is one such tactic. Learn about mimicry and explore some of the more wild and interesting examples of it.

Definition of Mimicry

We are all familiar with the element of disguise: dress like others in your surroundings, blend in, and go unnoticed. We also enjoy dressing in costume for parties and Halloween: assuming a new appearance and identity can be empowering! Animals do this too, though not by conscious choice.

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Mimicry occurs when one animal displays physical or behavioral traits that copy those of a different species or their surroundings, and incur a survival advantage on account of it. Animals don’t necessarily mimic other animals; often, they mimic plants or rocks.

How It Works

Let’s say there is a non-poisonous species of snake (A) that has the same coloring and patterns of a poisonous species (B). Snake A doesn’t have to actually be poisonous in order to reap the benefits of notoriety! Predators will avoid snake A, mistaking it for snake B.

This is not something that the snakes choose to do – natural selection has favored the non-poisonous snakes that bear a stronger resemblance to the poisonous ones, who survive to reproduce and pass on their ‘copycat’ genes. The more strongly they resemble the truly deadly snake, the more they will succeed, and the resemblance just gets stronger over subsequent generations.

Types and Examples of Mimicry

There are several ways in which mimicry can occur:

  • Batesian mimicry is when a non-poisonous species mimics the appearance of a poisonous one, like the snakes we discussed, or the fish and eel shown here. In this example, the fish is not poisonous, but it mimics the appearance of the eel, which is.

  • Peckhamian mimicry, aka ‘aggressive mimicry’, is when a predator mimics its prey in order to catch it. An example of this is the cuckoo bee, which lays its eggs in the nest of bumblebees, which they closely resemble and prey upon. When the eggs hatch, they basically invade the bumblebee nest and eat their hosts.
  • Mullerian mimicry is a phenomenon in which several different poisonous species all exhibit the same warning patterns/colors/shapes, so that a predator only needs to have a bad encounter with one to then know to stay away from all of that type. An example of this is butterflies, the Monarch being the most widely known example, but also the Viceroy. Both have nearly identical coloring and patterns, and both are poisonous to predators.

  • In Wasmannian mimicry, the mimic closely resembles another species it lives with in order to avoid being seen by predators, kind of like hiding in a crowd of people. Examples of this are common with social insects and spiders, in which one species of insect lives in the colony of another species; this frequently happens with a few different spider species that look like an ant species that the spider lives with.

Lesson Summary

Mimicry occurs when one animal displays physical or behavioral traits that copy those of a different species or their surroundings, and incur a survival advantage on account of it. There are several ways in which mimicry can occur:

  • Batesian mimicry is when a non-poisonous species mimics the appearance of a poisonous one.
  • Peckhamian mimicry, aka ‘aggressive mimicry,’ is when a predator mimics its prey in order to catch it.
  • Mullerian mimicry is a phenomenon in which several different poisonous species all exhibit the same warning patterns, colors and shapes.
  • In Wasmannian mimicry, the mimic closely resembles another species it lives with in order to avoid being seen by predators, kind of like hiding in a crowd of people.

The Four Types of Mimicry

Mimicry can take many forms
Many similar-looking butterflies
Batesian Packhamian Mullerian Wasmannian
A non-posionous species mimics a poisonous one A predator mimics its prey in order to catch it Several different poisonous species all mimic each other A species mimics another species that it lives with for safety

Learning Outcomes

When you are done, you should be able to:

  • Explain what mimicry is and how it can influence a species’ appearance
  • Name and describe the four types of mimicry
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