REALIZED THAT ANIMALS ARE DECEITFUL
March 27, 2011
If you have
ever played poker, encouraged a child to believe in Santa Claus, or skirted
the truth to avoid embarrassing a friend, you have been deceitful. Although
humans are generally discouraged from lying, all of us occasionally tell
little white lies. You may be surprised to know that the natural world
is also full of deceitful behavior.
In his 1871
book "The Descent of Man," Charles Darwin noted the "marvellously
deceptive appearance, through variation and natural selection" of
certain tropical butterflies. He was referring to edible species with
color patterns similar to those of species unpalatable to birds. The mimics
resembled the inedible species "so closely in every stripe and shade
of colour that they could not be distinguished except by an experienced
entomologist." Darwin's innate understanding of biology was amazing.
of mimicry in butterflies is credited to Henry Bates, another famous English
naturalist. Today biologists refer to Batesian mimicry, in which a harmless
form has evolved to be mistaken for a noxious one to avoid predation.
Early naturalists knew that animals use deceit and subterfuge to survive.
Darwin noted that some animals mimic others "in order to be mistaken
for the protected kinds and thus to escape being devoured." In short,
many animals are unmitigated liars.
of color patterns to deceive potential predators is widespread. Ocelli,
or false eyes, are a common deceptive feature. Many defenseless butterflies
and moths have ocelli on their wings that look like a pair of large eyes
belonging to a much larger creature. The ocelli deter certain predators
from trying to eat the butterfly. A dramatic example is the peacock butterfly
of Europe. Birds avoid attacking the seemingly big-eyed flying creature.
In the natural
world, camouflage is the quintessential deceit. Some animals add a form
of misdirection called flash colors. For example, the bright yellow on
the back legs of the eastern gray treefrog is hidden when the treefrog
is sitting on a tree. It is so well camouflaged on a gray-barked oak tree,
it is virtually invisible. But when the treefrog jumps, a pursuing bird
sees a brilliant flash of yellow. Upon landing, the treefrog folds up
its legs and once again blends in with the tree trunk. The bird, meanwhile,
searches futilely for a yellow frog.
use other ways to deceive predators, including behaviors that make them
appear bigger or more dangerous than they really are. Common hognose snakes
carry deception to an extreme, starting with an impressive threat display.
When confronted by a predator, the hognose raises the front part of its
body, expands its neck and hisses. This would be an honest display if
these snakes had hollow fangs and injected venom. But hognose snakes do
not even bite, let alone carry any of the weaponry of a cobra or a rattlesnake,
which use threat displays honestly. Then, as if it had not already been
dishonest enough, if a hognose is pestered further and continues to feel
threatened, it will roll over on its back, let its tongue hang limply
out of its mouth and play dead. Another deceitful performance. North America's
only marsupial has long held the franchise on "playing possum,"
but many other animals also play dead.
do not engage in Batesian mimicry, they are not above duplicity. The flower
of the voodoo lily of Southeast Asia produces a smell like rotting meat
that attracts scarab beetles, which feed on carrion. The flower is like
a good-smelling restaurant (to a scavenger). But the restaurant is not
open for business. Instead the voodoo lily hoaxes beetles into pollinating
its flowers. The bee orchids of Europe engage in a phenomenon known as
sexual deception. The flowers look and smell like females of certain species
of bees so that males are attracted to them, which results in pollination
of the orchid flowers.
a common means of survival and reproduction in the natural world and is
probably more prevalent among humans than we like to admit.
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