April Fools: The mimickers of the animal kingdom

Figure 1: Northern Mockingbird

Figure 1: Northern Mockingbird on a feeder. Notice the slate grey color and large white wing bands. Photo courtesy of Janet Furlong

Happy April Fools Day everyone! I’ve never been much of a pranker myself, but there are plenty of animal tricksters out there. Unlike us, they don’t try to trick others for fun. They do it for survival! Some animals mimic other, more dangerous animals to scare off predators. Others try to disappear into the background to either eat or avoid being eaten. Some even mimic others to attract a mate. I thought there was no better time to talk about the world of animal tricksters than today.

One of the iconic mimickers is the Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos). These birds are found throughout the U.S. and are often identified by their shape, color, and the white bands on their wings (Figure 1). If you have ever heard a string of different sounds or songs, you probably had a mockingbird in your yard. Mockingbirds learn different sounds in order to attract mates and defend territory. They continue learning songs, up to 200, throughout their life1 as you can hear in the video below. I encourage you to listen to the whole thing.

This bird’s variety is amazing. They will learn other sounds besides bird songs. I’ve heard of mockingbirds learning to mimic horses, car alarms, and cell phone rings. Now wouldn’t that be confusing? So the Mockingbird mimics for breeding purposes, but other animals mimic for defense.

The Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer), also known as a Bull Snake in some parts, is a large snake native to much of the U.S and into Canada and Mexico. When threatened, it mimicks a rattlesnake. It will hiss, puff up its body, coil, and flatten its head into a triangle-shape as you can see in the video below.

Although it looks very threatening and will bite if it feels threatened, it is not venomous3. That being said, it is never safe to approach or handle a wild snake if you do not know the species. If you come across a snake in the wild, please don’t kill it. Instead, walk slowly away and leave it alone. The gopher snake is a good guy; eating pests like mice and voles and is very important to our ecosystems.

Figure 2: Virginia Opossum

Figure 2: Virginia Opossum. Photo courtesy of Jillian M. Duquaine-Watson

Another defense mimicker is our continent’s only marsupial, the Virginia Opossum (Didelphia virginiana) (Figure 2). Opossums are like kangaroos in that they have pouches in which their babies grow. Once they are too big for the pouch, the babies will ride their mother’s back until they are big enough to keep up with her4. You’ve probably heard the term “playing possum.” That references this animal’s cool mimicking ability. It plays dead. Not only does it flop over and look dead, but it can lower its heart rate and exude a decay-like smell from its anal glands5. That is a good fooling.

Figure 3: Walkingstick Bug

Figure 3: Walkingstick Bug. Photo courtesy of Rosemary Bradley

Another way to avoid being eaten is to never be seen in the first place. Camouflage has led to some pretty incredible looking animals, especially in the insect world. Some of my favorites are the walkingstick bug and thorn treehoppers. I have great memories of finding walkingsticks in our family’s raspberry bushes. They get their namesake by their shape and resemblance to a stick or twig6 (Figure 3). The mimicry doesn’t end there. They move very slowly to avoid attention and will freeze and become stiff like a dead twig if they should be spotted7. There are 2,500 species of walking sticks, but only 4 are found in the Midwest. Most are found in the tropics6. Treehoppers are another well camouflaged insect. There are at least 3,200 species worldwide, and more are being discovered all the time. They come in a variety of shapes and colors with interesting thorax structures. Many have a triangular shape to them so they look like thorns when they are sitting still on a stem8 (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Two-marked treehoppper.

Figure 4: Two-marked treehoppper. Photo courtesy of www.bluejaybarrens.blogspot.com

So far, we’ve learned about animals using trickery to find mates and avoid predation, but some use it to find a meal. Crab spiders and praying mantises come to mind. Crab spiders are ambush predators and can change their color to avoid being seen by their insect prey9 (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Crab spider waiting in a flower

Figure 5: Crab spider waiting in a flower. Photo courtesy of Thomas Jordan

I have seen these little guys waiting inside flowers for unsuspecting flies or bees. The praying mantis is another ambush predator that is loved by many gardeners as a natural pest control. There are 20 species in North America, and they often rely of blending into the leaves to catch prey10 (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Praying Mantis

Figure 6: Praying Mantis. Can you find it? Photo courtesy of Nature08 coburn

Many different animals use mimicry and trickery to survive. These are just a few examples, but there are so many more. I hope you have enjoyed our Fools Day post. See you again April 15th. I have not decided on a subject yet, so it will be a surprise for us all.

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