“Everyone’s just lying to everyone”: ZeFrank on mimicry

March 4, 2021 • 2:30 pm

Matthew and I love mimicry, as it instantly shows the “creativity” of natural selection in a way that few other adaptations can. And it’s so diverse: note that there’s also audible mimicry, smell mimicry, and even “vibrational” mimicry, none of which can be seen by just looking at an animal’s appearance. We’ve only scratched the surface of the diverse ways that animals (and plants) can pretend to be something that they’re not.

This is the best ZeFrank video I’ve seen. Not only are the videos absolutely stunning, but it’s biologically accurate. (I found only one tiny error; can you spot it?) It’s not as funny as ZeFrank’s other videos, but to a bio nerd, it’s stunning. Do watch it, and if you’re not amazed at nature’s largesse, you have a heart (or brain) of stone.

Many of the images in the video are taken from here.

h/t: Matthew

23 thoughts on ““Everyone’s just lying to everyone”: ZeFrank on mimicry

    1. No, it’s at 5:45 where you suggest that a form of species selection operates in Müllerian mimicry, when “each species loses fewer individuals to the learning process than if they went it alone.” It would be better couched as a form of advantages to the individual than to the species. But it is a small error. The rest of the video is right on (I appreciated the recognition that the viceroy and monarch butterflies are now thought to be an example of Müllerian mimicry.)

      Superb job: kudos!


  1. As I said to my wife after we watched this, it’s as good as anything David Attenborough has done. And that is high praise.

  2. This IS excellent – gorgeous subjects and photography – humor at the precise time it is needed – but how does this approach – an almost silly careless attitude – crystallize these complex concepts with such clarity and “ah ha!” effect? Excellent writing! New stuff too.

    Is aposematic pronounced “ay-poh-seh-ma-tik”?

    One problem : the language makes showing it to kids potential trouble for the dads – unless moms say it is ok.

  3. Here, a day late, are some possibly misleading statements and relevant omissions in this otherwise excellent video:

    3:30 Could add that the Monkey-Slug Caterpillar has a truly terrible sting. I don’t know anyone who thinks they look like shed spider molts. And anyway, the caterpillars live on leaves; wolf spiders and tarantulas live and presumably molt on the ground. A Monkey-Slug Caterpillar predator, if such exists, would be unlikely to come across tarantula molts, must less learn to avoid eating them.

    4:25 When discussing distasteful prey, the video shows a bird crushing a butterfly, as if the bird was treating the insect gingerly because it was distasteful. But the butterfly is a skipper, a group which so far as anyone knows is neither bad-tasting nor toxic. The bird is most likely tenderizing the prey before swallowing, not rejecting it.

    4:50 When talking about aposematic coloration, the narrator claims that “. . . for animals that have toxins there can be an evolutionary advantage in helping the predator to learn to avoid them. In some cases, this means an animal will do the opposite of hiding, displaying bright colors and making themselves very conspicuous. This is called aposematic coloration.” Distasteful and toxic animals do not evolve conspicuousness “to” help the predator learn. Greater conspicuousness evolves because the predator has painfully learned from previous experience, and individuals that clearly and methodically display what the predator has learned become the best protected from future attack.

    5:40 The explanation of the evolution of Mullerian mimicry is incorrect. It evolves because intermediate variants of each source species are more likely to be avoided (positively selected) by predators than are divergent variants. This causes the ancestral forms to converge through natural selection.

    5:40 The butterfly shown at 5:40-45 (Siproeta epaphus) when discussing aposematic coloration is probably perfectly palatable to avian predators, as are the fast flying yellow butterflies seen in open, sunny places everywhere across America (Asia, Africa, S. America, & Australia) every summer. It so happens that big butterflies, no matter their color, are easy for birds to see no matter their color, but are hard to catch, such that their conspicuousness – at least on the upper sides of their wings – is largely unconstrained. Aposematism, in butterflies anyway, is largely a question of the insect’s demeanor. That is my view anyway.

    7:15 The narrator implies that the 14 mimetic female forms of the African swallowtail butterfly Papilio dardanus live in the same geographic region and thus act simultaneously to dilute the frequency of specific Batesian mimics. While the argument is correct, there are usually ‘only’ 3 or 4 mimetic female morphs present at a given locality.

    8:00 The biology of Heliconius butterflies is not exactly on target. Species with cannibalistic caterpillars lay eggs singly on vine branches that may be too small to provide food for more than a single caterpillar. Thus, it makes sense for older, bigger caterpillars to eat smaller ones so as to guarantee enough food to make it through. The problem is that the video shows an egg batch and hatching caterpillars of one of the few species, Heliconius doris(?), that selects giant branches for laying eggs and does not practice cannibalism. Species that lay eggs singly avoid stems that already have eggs on them (and soon will harbor cannibalistic larvae) and may be deceived by plant structures that mimic the butterfly’s egg.

    8:45 Amazon Bark Anole does not use its colorful dewlap for defense as implied. The dewlap display serves to signal territory ownership to other males and to court females. The lizard is perfectly edible and is eaten by birds like the Kiskadee flycatcher.

  4. Thanks W.Benson, thanks for your very interesting review… it’s always great to have more detailed scientific info. Would love to be in touch for further details… can you point me to your email or webpage? Or click on my username above to find my contact info. Best regards, David Weiller

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