stop copying me: the phenomenon of mimicry in nature

stop copying me: the phenomenon of mimicry in nature

When studying the life sciences, there are a lot of in-depth concepts to take in. Depending on the the type of science you are studying, biology vs. evolution, for example, you may even have to learn a handful of mathematical formulas to fully appreciate the material. Here, we are just having a light-hearted overview of the life sciences, so a light serving of sativa will do just fine.

In my experience, sativa helps me to not get lost in wordy texts (reading that is not broken up by graphics/tables or formulas) and keep my mind sharp and able to take in all relevant information. Grinding about 60mg (less than 1/4 of a 1g bud) of sativa and smoking just a small pinch of that for over a 3-5hr period is perfect for maintaining a healthy attention span for learning.

Black Flower Science Co. does not claim to be a medical professional and does not offer recommendations as a substitute for medical advice. All advice and recommendations are based on personal experience of the benefits of medical marijuana. If you are experiencing severe or declining mental health symptoms, please seek the advice of a medical professional.

“Red and black, venom lack. Red and yellow, kill a fellow.” For ages, this little rhyme (and variations of it) has helped people differentiate between the venomous Sonoran coral snake and harmless milk and king snakes.

A brightly colored animal is usually using its physical appearance, or phenotype, to tell you or any other predators to “BACK OFF!” This type of signaling defense is known as “aposematism.” The animals that employ this method of defense are often equipped with toxins or other repellent defenses.

A predator will attempt to consume one of these animals, and quickly learn by the extremely horrible taste or stinging bite that this prey item is nothing to mess with – a mistake they will keep stored in memory to avoid such an unpleasant experience in the future.

In the words of Alfred Russel Wallace, “Some outward sign of distastefulness is necessary to indicate to a would-be destroyer that the prey is a disgusting morsel.”

Henderson State University

Look-Alike Species in the Wild – How Does this Work?

As far as terrestrial life, aposematism is usually seen in reptiles, amphibians and insects, so that’s we’re going to focus on here. However, not every conspicuously-colored animal is packed with dangerous repellants…. Some are bluffing.

Müllerian mimicry, named after biologist, Fritz Müller, is the occurrence of repellent species looking alike. A rarer morph of a species will evolve to match commoner morphs, which ultimately increases the protective quality of its appearance, since threatening species will have a greater chance of learning to avoid the more common phenotype. In this circumstance, common morphs share the same local habitat, contributing again to the predator learning curve.

For example, when Heliconius butterflies in Central and South America do not match the commoner morph (or, in other words, their phenotype is “non-mimetic”) they suffer lower survivorship on average. Predators would not be exposed to the rarer morph as often as the other, so, despite them both being distasteful, the rare morph’s appearance simply doesn’t achieve the same effect.

Another form of mimicry, Batesian mimicry, named after Henry Walter Bates, is when “palatable,” or harmless, species mimic toxic species in both appearance and behavior. This is manifested in countless ways – spiders will mimic ants, harmless snakes will mimic venomous snakes, even plants will mimic aphids and ants. The reasoning for its effectiveness is the same – because predators learn to avoid the conspicuous phenotypes of toxic prey, they avoid mimics. 

The previously mentioned milk snakes and king snakes are examples of this. The Sonoran coral snake is equipped with a neurotoxic venom, meaning their venom has damaging effects to the nervous system. Their venom is the second most powerful of all snakes, right behind the black mamba. They’re slender and small, and generally considered to be not as dangerous as their venom potency suggests, due to their method of venom delivery. Their short fangs hinders their ability to pierce through thick clothing or shoes, which requires them to literally chew through these barriers in order to inject the poison.

Snakes that mimic the Sonoran coral snake include the Sonoran and California mountain kingsnakes, the milk snake, ground snake and long-nosed snake.

Sonoran Coral Snake | Reptiles of AZ

Expensive Taste: Biological Costs of Mimicry

These animals benefit a great deal from copying the venomous species, but there are also costs to be considered.

At times, these bright patterns can be “costly to wear,” as coloration has the potential to interfere with physiological functions such as thermoregulation. They can also be “costly to make,” considering the high demand for calories in the process of pigment production.

These species are putting so much energy into simply looking like other animals instead of making their own unique defenses. What’s the point of that?

I once saw a comic illustrating god’s creation of the worm. In it, he exclaimed something along the lines of, “These are easy!” while rolling up a worm like a dough into a breadstick. The point of the image is: The reason there are so many worms in the world is because god found them so easy, that he just kept making more and more of them!

The same concept can be applied to animals that display Müllerian and Batesian mimicry. Instead of using their energy to develop unique defense mechanisms, they’ve defaulted to recycling already-existing phenotypes of actually-dangerous animals.

(Excuse the teleological language here. The animals, of course, did not choose to recycle these physical attributes, rather, it was evolutionarily beneficial to do so and those who did had better survivorship and reproductive success.)

Green Goddess Supply Grinders

It’s interesting to note that even in mimicry, the mimics do have their own spin on the defensive phenotypes. The bands of the western ground snake are narrow and short, not stretching around the entire diameter of the body, disappearing on the way down to the tail. The mountain king snakes, and even the coral snakes, are not confined to red, black and white, but come in shades of yellow, creams, and browns.

Sure, they may be mimics, but they are not exact replicas.

There is an element of wonder in the idea of plants mimicking insects: how do the plants know what to mimic, and how to do that? Passiflora flowers, passion flowers, have structures that resemble Heliconius butterfly eggs in order to deter them from laying their eggs on the petals. Paspalum paspaloides, a grass, has numerous structures along its length that mimic a colony of aphids, which deters herbivores from feeding on the plant.

These plants have no visual capabilities that would allow them to develop these structures on their own, so… how do they develop these mimicry techniques? We’ll get into that question and more in Part II!

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