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Dazzled and Deceived

Mimicry and Camouflage

By Peter Forbes
  • Read in 13 minutes
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  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Dazzled and Deceived by Peter Forbes

Dazzled and Deceived (2009) explores the fascinating phenomenon of camouflage and mimicry in nature, where animals act like leaves and harmless prey look like ferocious predators. These blinks examine how the science of camouflage has influenced not only artistic expression but also how humans fight and win wars.

Key idea 1 of 8

Distinguished scientists like Darwin, Wallace and Bates studied mimicry in nature for over a century.

Have you ever looked at a tree trunk and been startled to see a butterfly emerge, seemingly out of nowhere? If so, you’ve experienced the wonder of mimicry, a phenomenon that has captivated laypeople and researchers alike.

Let’s go back in history to see how the study of mimicry originated.

In the nineteenth century, English naturalist Henry Walter Bates and friend Alfred R. Wallace set out to research butterflies in the Amazonian rainforest.  

They were delighted by the unbelievable variety of different species they found. What excited their scientific imaginations even further were the fascinating, mysterious behaviors of these many species.

For instance, these pioneers found that the benign Leptalis genus of butterfly mimicked the look of poisonous butterflies. Leptalis butterflies did this so effectively, in fact, that they shared almost the same wing pattern with poisonous butterflies. Only when Bates caught, dissected and compared the two types of butterflies was he able to recognize them as two distinct species.

This behavior, in which harmless creatures mimic poisonous or harmful ones, is now aptly called Batesian mimicry. This finding, among others, marked some of the first steps of mimicry study.

If the names of these scientists don’t ring a bell, you’ll be interested to know that Charles Darwin was also a frequent collaborator with Wallace. In fact, Darwin had initially felt threatened because Wallace’s theories on natural selection were similar to his, and thus created the potential for competition.

Luckily, the two scientists decided to channel their competitive energies into collaboration. Darwin was particularly interested in how mimicry might influence his theories of evolution and the survival of the fittest. Together, Wallace and Darwin explored the intersection of mimicry and mating, with questions such as whether potential sexual partners would be more attracted to colorful mimics.

Though most of their theories didn’t hold up, their mimicry studies were highly influential on their research and publications on evolution theory – and on science as a whole.

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