Deep in the Amazon rain forest, biologists have discovered a bird which disguises its babies as poisonous caterpillars. The bird, known as the cinereous mourner, is hatched from the egg covered with spiky orange feathers and white tips just like a local species of toxic caterpillar. The baby even acts like a caterpillar, and will not break its disguise unless its parents give it a specific call, apparently the avian “all clear.” This is a wild example of a survival strategy called Batesian mimicry, where a harmless animal imitates something dangerous in order to avoid predation. The classic example is the harmless milk snake, nearly identical to the deadly coral snake except for the subtle arrangement of its colors. This is the first known example of a bird mimicking an insect, but mimicry in the animal world can be even more spectacular—and more devious.
The Amazonian bird is incredible, but when it comes to skullduggery nothing can hold a candle to the orchid mantis. The orchid mantis is a type of praying mantis, but instead of the green angular form most of us are familiar with, the orchid mantis is delicate shades of pale purple or pink, with a flattened abdomen and flat, spread limbs. It resembles—you guessed it—a flower. It has long been assumed that this unusual appearance was to fool and consume would-be pollinators, and in a 2014 paper in American Naturalist, James O’Hanlon and colleagues proved it. Through careful observation, O’Hanlon and colleagues proved that the mantis is indeed successful at fooling prey into believing it is a flower just waiting to be pollinated.
In a further masterstroke of deception, the mantis sets itself up away from other flowers, to avoid competition from real ones. In this manner, the mantis actually attracts—and eats, of course— more pollinators than a real orchid does! This form of mimicry, where a predator mimics something harmless, is occasionally referred to as aggressive mimicry.
Finally, no discussion of mimicry is complete without mentioning the ultimate maestro of mimics, the well-named mimic octopus. This octopus has been known to imitate a flatfish, a poisonous lionfish, a sea snake, jellyfish, and on other occasions, a coconut. This ability to mimic multiple species, called polymorphic mimicry, is very unusual. Most species, like the newly discovered bird, are limited to imitating just one other species, and generally that’s enough to accomplish the goal of staying alive. So long as there is one species in the neighborhood that suits your needs, that will suffice.