by Whit Gibbons

November 17, 2013

We often hear of someone being criticized for "profiling" someone else. In that context, profiling (aka stereotyping) means failing to recognize an individual for his or her personal qualities and instead indiscriminately projecting general traits ascribed to a group onto an individual. Among human beings, such behavior can have significant consequences for both the profiler and the person being profiled.

Interestingly, some other species also use a kind of profiling. And as with people, the consequences can be significant. Early scientific evidence of profiling in nature was presented in the 1800s by Henry Bates, a British naturalist. In the spirit of adventure Bates set out to explore the jungles of the Amazon River. After spending more than a decade in South American forests collecting birds, insects, and other creatures, Bates made a highly significant scientific discovery - the phenomenon of animal mimicry.

He reported the idea to science in a publication in 1862. He noted that insect predators, especially birds, readily ate butterflies. Nonetheless, he observed that a few species of butterflies flitted openly and languidly through the Amazonian forests without being eaten or even attacked by anything. He surmised that they must be unpalatable. Caterpillars feeding on plants that produce poisonous chemicals that do not harm the caterpillar develop into butterflies that are poisonous to predators. Bates noted that these free-flying butterflies all had conspicuously colored wings that made them readily recognizable. It was easy for a predator to make a quick judgment call and avoid the poisonous insect. In other words, a butterfly with a striking and identifiable color pattern was one not to be eaten. The birds used profiling to keep from consuming the wrong prey.

However, Bates also determined that some species of a typically plain-colored group of palatable butterfly species unrelated to the inedible group could also fly around the forest with impunity. Why? Because some of the edible species had evolved wing colors that mimicked the inedible species. Even he was unable to differentiate between some of the species when they were in flight, although they belonged to different families of butterflies.

For more than a century and a half, scientific debate has continued over Bates's interpretations about mimicry, with many scientists dancing on the head of a pin about one aspect or another. But it is beyond debate that some butterflies can fly around protected from bird predation because their appearance is similar to other butterflies that are noxious.

Another classic example of profiling is seen in predators that prey on snakes. The harmless scarlet kingsnake of the Southeast with its colorful red, yellow, and black body rings mimics the deadly eastern coral snake, which has rings of the same colors. The arrangement of the rings is different in the two species, but how many snake-eating birds are going to make that determination on the fly? A field research project conducted in areas where both scarlet kingsnakes and coral snakes occur suggested that most predators will not take the risk. The researchers concluded that predators were significantly more likely to avoid snakes with red, yellow, and black rings compared to snakes that were plain brown or longitudinally striped. In other words, most predators would consider it more prudent to forfeit a meal of a scarlet kingsnake than risk trying to eat a coral snake and ending up dead instead. Having a mental profile that red, yellow, and black rings can mean trouble is a survival mechanism, although the particular tricolored individual may be harmless.

Although these examples may simplify the behavior, animals indisputably use profiling as a survival mechanism. So, since profiling is a natural phenomenon, perhaps we should not criticize the conduct in humans. Perhaps. On the other hand, among the other natural behaviors documented in various animals are siblicide (birds), suicide missions (honeybees), and slavery (ants) - not universally admired traits in humans. So perhaps we should not apply Mother Nature's rules of behavior to people but should instead judge human behavior by human standards.

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