We have written before about wildlife camouflage, but it seems long enough ago that we thought we could take another go at the subject, because we have learned a lot in the last five years. This time we will focus on the idea of mimicry used by five of the beasts that live in or around Three Mile Bay, White Lake. But first, a short description of what ‘mimicry’ in nature refers to. Mimicry is said to occur when one animal displays physical traits that copy those of a different species, providing a survival advantage to the mimic. Further, wild turkeys can be said to mimic their surroundings, also called camouflage, when they disappear just inches into the long grasses at the shoulder of the road.
Many animals mimic the markings or look of another species for protection, and this article will focus on this physical mimicry rather than camouflage. For starters, the viceroy butterfly mimics the monarch butterfly. The viceroy butterfly has evolved to look similar to the monarch butterfly which is toxic. Potential predators have learned to avoid the monarch butterfly, and have generalized this learning to the similar-looking viceroy. As a result, predators avoid both species of butterfly because they think both taste bad. Many humans have some difficulty discerning one from the other too. The first photograph below is the viceroy butterfly; the strait black line transecting the bottom of its hind wing is the key marking that distinguishes it from a monarch. The second is the monarch butterfly.
Beetles mimic other beetles and sometimes bees. The hairy scarab flower beetle closely resembles a bumble bee when it is in flight. For obvious reasons, animals tend to avoid stinging insects. Mimicking the look of a bumble bee provides the hairy scarab beetle with protection from predators. The photo below is a hairy flower scarab beetle on an ox-eye daisy.
Carolyn’s personal favourite example of mimicry is displayed by syrphid flies. While they are closely related to the common house fly they often look like bees or wasps. However much the syrphid fly pictured below looks dangerous, you can rest assured that it does not sting. Known to entomologists as Mallota posticata, this pretty syrphid fly does not, unfortunately, have a common name. We are highlighting it here because 2021 is the first year we have seen and photographed Mallota posticata. Of course, this does not mean it has not been here all along. We think it looks a lot like a bumble bee, but again, Mallota posticata will not sting you, even if you brush by it carelessly while it is pollinating your garden flowers.
Another type of fly, again closely related to the house fly, is the bee fly. We have photographed several different species of bee fly at the lake, but one of the more unusual-looking ones is the hunchback bee fly, which in the photo below, rested for a while on Bruce who, although allergic to bee and wasp stings, was not the least bit concerned because he knew it was not a bee or wasp, and it would soon be back at its job of pollinating flowers.
To our thinking, an unusual non-insect mimic is the red-backed salamander which mimics the redness of the eastern newt’s nymph stage. At the nymph stage, the eastern newt advertises its toxicity via its orangey-red colouration. The red-backed salamander mimics this colouration, thus garnering some protection from would-be predators. Both animals are tiny and hide well under rocks and logs on the forest floor, or as was the case of this red-backed salamander in 2014, under a piece of scrap lumber by the boat house. We consider ourselves fortunate with these two sightings. We seldom see either animal. The first photograph below is an adult Eastern Newt; the second is a red-backed salamander.
This short article describes just five of the mimics we have seen at the cottage. We have learned to take a close second look as we are often rewarded when we discover other beasties that rely on physical mimicry. Since nature seems to love this form of camouflage we will keep our eyes peeled for more masterful mimics.
Of the reading we did for this article, the most accessible piece about mimicry was in Michael Runtz’s 1995 Wild Things The Hidden World of Animals. We also need to credit Peter Hall’s The ROM Field Guide to butterflies of Ontario; and, Arthur Evans’ Beetles of Eastern North America.