Crafty Caterpillars Mimic Each Other to Avoid Predators

Scientists have long documented mimicry in adult butterflies, but new research shows that caterpillars also use this defense mechanism to deter predators.

This image shows four different Neotropical caterpillar species from eastern Ecuador that have adapted the same warning color, a mimicry technique, to deter predators. Pictured are Pseudoscadaflorula, from top, Oleriasexmaculata, Ithomiaamarilla and Forbestraolivencia.

To protect themselves from hungry predators, caterpillars have evolved a number of defenses. Some caterpillars physically camouflage themselves to look like bird droppings or sticks, while others have developed fake eyes to scare off birds. Some caterpillars even have chemical defenses gained from poisonous plants, which they then broadcast to predators with a bright warning coloration.

Although many adult butterflies employ mimicry — where one species develops warning color patterns similar to another species’ — to quickly teach predators which insects to avoid, scientists have observed few definitive cases of caterpillars using this strategy.

“Mimicry in general is one of the best and earliest-studied examples of natural selection, and it can help us learn where evolutionary adaptations come from,” University of Florida biologist Keith Willmott said in a statement.


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