There is no dirty trick that evolution won’t try when given the chance – so long as it in some way serves one of its primary imperatives of survival and reproduction.
For the most part, evolution has relied on genuine ingenuity; building robust, effective features in animals – like a cheetah’s swift, slender frame, or a shark’s aerodynamic body and terrible, razor teeth – which provide honest advantages for the animals’ respective plights.
But natural selection is nothing if not crafty, and so occasionally it will play a devious hoax, of smoke and mirrors – evolving organisms that merely pretend to have some adaptive feature – yet still reap all the benefits of that feature.
How is this possible, you ask? By the duplicitous trick of Batesian Mimicry.
To understand Batesian Mimicry, we first need to take a trip to the Amazon Rainforest, where a fascinating little creature hops and wallows.
This tiny little frog, no larger than your thumb, has existed here for untold millennia, trying to mind his own business in the clefts and folds of the forest floor. But he had a persistent problem throughout much of his evolutionary history – his precursors were constantly eaten by all manner of uncouth predators, who never for a minute left the poor guy alone to bounce about and gorge on insects in peace.
Fed up with the constant need to avoid these tenacious predators, the frog – with a little help from natural selection – developed an uncouth trick of its own: it began to secrete a nasty poison from its skin.
The frog therefore became entirely unpalatable to its predators, which, by all accounts, seems like a resounding success for the tiny amphibian.
But there was a problem.
The hapless fellow was so small that to many of his hunters, he was but a morsel – and could be gobbled up instantaneously with the snap of a jaw, or the gnash of a beak, so his poisonous defense was for nothing.
It was small consolation to the frog that his killers might suffer, or die after his own death; vengeance doesn’t seem to be a priority for most animals in nature.
So this state of affairs wasn’t much help either to the frog, or those who wished to consume him; it was a lose-lose situation.
But eventually, this little wrinkle in the frog’s plan for peace was smoothed out: natural selection had an ingenious idea. If the frog had some means of advertising the fact that it was poisonous to its would-be predators – then he could create a win-win situation, whereby the frog could go about its business in peace, and his predators could move on to more palatable fares.
So, over time, the frog became festooned with vibrant colours, and bedecked with all manner of gaudy patterns, and would-be predators came to recognize them for what they were: a warning. So they stayed away.
Thus the frog – now called the ‘poison dart frog’ – after millions of years of effort, had finally carved out a fragile peace for itself.. at least until some party pooper of a snake had to go and develop a resistance to its poison – simultaneously killing the frog’s short-lived sense of security, and its buzz.
This phenomenon of broadcasting a warning to other animals is known as ‘apostematism’ – from the Greek ‘apo’, meaning away, and ‘sema’ meaning sign.
And it’s certainly not limited to small frogs in the Amazon; all manner of creatures have adopted this feature, from the flamboyantly coloured milkweed bug, to the ostentatious skunk.
Which leads us to Batesian Mimicry.
Nature is full of freeloaders – unscrupulous organisms that want to reap all the rewards for none of the investment. And so wherever there is an opportunity to be exploited, someone is going to exploit it – it’s capitalism manifested in nature.
So, with this new state of affairs brought about by the poison dart frog and his ilk – where predators had developed an aversion to animals that look a certain way – some creatures realized that they could simply look this particular way in order to acquire the benefit, without needing to go through all that unnecessary rigmarole of actually developing a poison themselves.
It’s genius really, but we should expect no less of the powerful process of natural selection.
Anyway, here’s a couple of examples of this cunning trickery in nature.
The hoverfly: a bold-faced liar
The hoverfly has used lies in order to coast off of the hard work done by bees, who spent years developing their venom, and then unleashed it indiscriminately on anyone who deigned to piss them off.
As you can see, this wily fly has evolved to usurp the identity of a bee – thus exploiting the fear that bees have struck into the hearts of pretty much every organism in nature.
The Viceroy: a convincing counterfeit
No, that’s not a monarch butterfly – it’s an imposter. The Viceroy butterfly has evolved to resemble the monarch, whose hard-won labours in developing a toxicity to birds proved an easy exploit for these disingenuous phonies.
The Kingsnake: master of identity theft
If this snake is the ‘king’ of anything – it’s fraud.
These snakes were unable or unwilling to develop venom of their own, so they simply defrauded the coral snake, who actually did, in order to scare off those predators that have grown to respect the coral snake’s honesty, and deadliness.
To conclude this article, I want to emphasize something. Although I have been facetiously ascribing foresight and cunning to these creatures of nature, and to the process of natural selection – we must always keep in mind that the process is actually entirely blind and mechanical (but a little personification never hurt anyone).
Also, to be fair, a Batesian adaptation is no less valid than any other survival or reproductive adaptation. And moral values don’t really exist in nature – so take my harsh criticisms and judgments of these creatures with a grain of salt.
Even if they are filthy little charlatans.