Handling the tricky stuff

Handling the tricky stuff

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Mimicry, Shmimicry. It's the Fear, Stupid

Mimicry, Schmimicry. It's the Fear, Stupid.

What’s the reason for  the copy, or, perhaps as Yeats said, how do we know the dancer from the dance?

Two posts ago, I discussed mimicry in caterpillars and adult Lepidoptera again, mainly focusing on adaptations that allow these yummy bugs to hide in plain sight from all the creatures that want to eat them.  But this is really only half of the story. The other half – using mimicry as a kind of offensive weapon – is really more to the point when considering the case of the 5th instar hickory horned devils and the spider mimicry that I have proposed their horns are helping them accomplish.

If camouflage is one way caterpillars and moths keep safe from birds and other predators, another is to develop a visual association with things these animals actively avoid – things that they find aggressive, unpleasant, or are outright life-threatening. If done effectively,  this is an even better strategy, because when the predator succeeds in discovering the bug, it still works. Birds and other predators actively avoid things that they are scared of. I say “if done effectively,” because mimicking a threat animal may, in fact, be harder to evolve working adaptations for than developing camouflage. Nonetheless, there are a lot of examples of effective fear-based  mimicry in nature, so it can’t be that hard.

A common kind of offensive mimicry in caterpillars is to evolve color spots that look like eyes, so as (obviously, due to their long, cylindrical shape) to look a bit like snakes.  Birds really do not like snakes, for good reason – snakes are one of their few predators that can get up in the trees. Here are a few examples of caterpillar-snake mimicry:

Eye spots are apparently relatively simple to evolve through changes in the genes that affect surface coloration, which may contribute to this being a popular (commonly arrived at through the forces of natural selection, that is) survival trick.  Eye spots also occur a lot in adult moths and butterflies, especially in larger ones – for instance among the giant silk moths. Here are two different North American examples:
Io Moth
Polyphemus Moth

Obviously moth eye spots are not there to mimic snakes, so what is the function? Well, birds have other predators as well in the trees – climbing mammals such as raccoons and opossums (and squirrels, which, believe it or not, sometimes eat bird), and especially hawks and owls. Behavioral biologists generally assume that the wing spots on moths are there because when a disturbed moth flashes them it gives an attacking bird the shock of thinking that it has stumbled on an owl.  If you are a small bird, always on the lookout for ambush attacks from these winged predators, this would be a very nasty surprise and an effective scare.

“Avoidance,” which we humans think of as a rational, learned thing, is actually more a behavioral adaptation in nature, and an unseen property in ecosystems. Creatures living in the natural environment have a day-to-day struggle to stay alive: to not be eaten, to not starve, or to not fall into a state (through lack of food, injury, sickness, etc.) where they cannot maintain the strenuous activities they absolutely must perform daily to keep living. Generally, they have no backup, no support system, the way humans do with our human society. Consequently, when there’s something that is pretty constantly bad/dangerous/risky for them in their natural environment, natural selection tends to evolve an automatic behavior in the animal’s population that causes them to avoid the risk – natural avoidance . Let’s call it an instinctive fear.  Humans can’t see these instinctive fears in nature directly (you’d have to be inside the bird’s head), but it can be a real thing, with really obvious signs – a pattern in the ecosystem, if you like – that you can detect indirectly.

Take the strange pattern of the commonness of blue-black butterflies in the American South.  Here are a few examples – notice the common pattern:

How do we explain the commonness of this pattern of colors? Okay, you might say, these are all swallowtail butterflies – they are all related to each other, so maybe they’ve all just inherited the pattern from a common ancestor. But then consider these two butterflies, which actually come in two different color forms,  a blue-black form, and one that is not:
Red spotted purple (Limenitis arthemis)
Banded purple (Limenitis arthemis)
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (dark form)
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Notice first, that the red spotted purple is not related to the swallowtails (it belongs to the brush-footed butterflies, a very different group) and that the different forms of the two species are really different in appearance. One form of each is blue-black, while the other has vertical stripes. (Vertical stripes are an interesting defensive adaptation that helps flying butterflies survive bird attacks by making it difficult for the bird to distinguish between the butterfly’s body and wing when it is in motion – if the bird pecks the wing, the butterfly gets away.)

A key piece of information to note is that the blue-black forms of these two butterflies are not common everywhere in each butterfly’s range: they are only common in the south. When I collected butterflies as a kid in Ithaca, NY,  I never saw a red spotted purple or a dark form tiger swallowtail though banded purples and regular tiger swallowtails were very common.  But when my family traveled about 100 miles south (say, to Long Island or Pennsylvania ) I did finally see these elusive insects and collected them excitedly. I was really confused why they were so common a relatively short drive away.

There is a reason – the pipevine swallowtail (the first photo in the series) feeds pretty exclusively on the toxic southern plant pipevine and, with that plant, has a range whose northern limits are about at Long Island and central Pennsylvania. The poison the butterfly gets from its food plant is, apparently, very toxic to birds – so toxic, in fact,  that birds are really afraid of it (avoidance again), and other butterflies (none of which are poisonous themselves) have adapted (though natural selection) to take advantage of this fear through mimicry of the pipevine swallowtail.  This is a kind of mimicry that biologists call “Batesian Mimicry.”

I’ve read descriptions of how this works that go basically this way: “any bird that tastes a pipevine swallowtail has such an unpleasant experience that it doesn’t ever forget it and any butterfly that looks like the noxious one gets left alone as well.”  Is this what is happening?

As a human, it’s natural to imagine it this way, since we learn most of the avoidance we practice – like learning that the flame on the stove is hot, etc.  For birds to learn the poisonousness of butterflies this way however, seems somewhat unlikely – it would likely take a little while for the association of sickness with the specific insect to be learned, and birds only live a year or two. It seems likely that only a small part of the bird population would be experienced enough to practice avoidance. There’s also the issue of how clear a lesson birds are being taught, given all these harmless, tasty mimics that are perfectly good to eat also flitting around the birds. In my observations, both here and in other parts of the south, pipevine swallowtails are not rare, but they are by no means the most common of all these insects. If you were a bird regularly eating blue-black butterflies, and only occasionally ate one that made you sick, how long would it take for you to get the message? A while, I think. If each bird has to learn for itself not to eat a blue-black butterfly, the result seems hardly likely to be effective enough to make mimicry an effective adaptation – which it must be.

So let me propose a slightly different hypothesis that I think makes a little more sense, given all the evidence of mimicry: I propose that the toxin that is in the pipevine swallowtail can be seriously dangerous to birds’ health, having a significant impact on their ability to survive.  If the toxin is this harmful, natural selection would favor the development of an instinctive fear (natural avoidance again) of butterflies that look like that. This instinctive fear is really a simple, built-in behavioral rule that keeps the birds away from that particular form of harm (like a built-in fear of snakes and owls, or like my fear of spiders).  This behavioral rule is powerful and widespread (it evolves in many species for the same reason), so natural selection (in turn) favors many other butterfly species adapting to take advantage of its invisible presence. It doesn’t matter that most of them are perfectly good to eat – natural selection has hardwired in a dislike for black butterflies as a general principle, so if they evolve black coloration the avoid being eaten.

Pipevine -- a pretty plant, but the source of birds fearing
black butterflies.
My basic point here is that there are features in the landscape you can see directly (watch an owl eat a songbird), but there are also important forces out there that exist invisibly (in behavioral adaptations, like fear of black butterflies for example) that you can’t see directly. You can, however, still come to understand what these forces are by looking for patterns (common forms of mimicry, in this case) that provide clues.  In some ways,  I think it can be more exciting in nature study to see the invisible than it is the visible.  Who would have known that the innocent little pipevine plant could be responsible for  a significant piece of predator-prey behavior in eastern North America or for making many butterflies in the south black? Perhaps something similar is responsible for the bright coloration of the adult regal moth, but I’ll leave that for a later post.

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