Young orangutan photographed in Indonesia

Jon Fisher is a data management specialist for The Nature Conservancy based in Arlington, VA.

Some say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, but ulterior motives abound in the animal kingdom. Biomimicry is the imitation of a natural phenomenon, and in this dog-eat-dog world — or rather, for this example, bird-eat-insect world — riding the coattails of a successful species may be the ticket to survival.

For example, both Monarch and Viceroy butterflies have a very similar appearance (despite belonging to different genera), and both contain toxins that make them an unpleasant meal.

As these two species evolved towards a common appearance, they benefited from an increased chance that a predator had already learned to avoid orange and black striped butterflies after suffering from a bitter taste and an upset stomach. In this case, both species benefit by looking the same (which scientists call “Müllerian” mimicry) as they both get eaten less.

Monarch & Viceroy butterflies

Left: Viceroy butterfly. Right: Monarch butterfly.

But of course, not all mimics help each other out. In some cases, just as you’ve built up a tough reputation by spending a lot of energy developing natural defenses, some punk copycat shows up looking for a free ride.

For example, many bees, wasps and hornets share a pattern of alternating yellow and black stripes (another example of Müllerian mimicry). But since so many predators have learned to avoid them, they are also a popular target of “Batesian” (or freeloading) mimics. From moths to flies to beetles, many harmless insects have found that as long as their population size is low relative to their more dangerous lookalikes, predators will play it safe and avoid them too.

Drone Fly & Hornet Moth

Left: Drone fly. Right: Hornet moth.

Biomimicry isn’t always about insect survival. Humans mimic animals and there are a number of amazing animals that copy us right back.

From simple examples like house sparrows learning to open automatic doors to impressively complex ones (see the video of an orangutan stealing a canoe, paddling out to a boat, stealing a fish trap and eating the fish), it might not be long before the idea of dogs playing poker doesn’t seem funny anymore.

Now that we know that crows can not only recognize our faces but describe us to other crows, we might want to step up our game before they figure out the best way to put us to work for them. Be sure to check out Biomimicry News to keep track of our progress!

[Top image: Young orangutan photographed in Indonesia. Image source: Jez O’Hare.
Middle images: Monarch and Viceroy butterflies. Image source: steveburt1947/Flickr via a Creative Commons license.
Bottom images: Drone fly. Image source: joysaphine/Flickr. Hornet moth. Image source: averribi/Flickr.]

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  1. You have the monarch and viceroy photo captions reversed…monarch is on the right.

  2. Jon,

    This was an absolutely fascinating article! My jaw literally dropped when I watched the video of the orangutan stealing a canoe; it totally reminded me of the recent “Planet of the Apes” remake/reboot. I’m looking forward to reading more articles on biomimicry, as well as other articles on the Nature Conservancy blog 🙂

  3. Loved this article! Especially the butterfly photos!

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