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Communication is key among organisms. Various signals – sights, sounds, smells – can serve to warn, attract, or manipulate others. So it’s no surprise that many organisms have evolved to copy the signals of others for their own deceitful purposes. In this episode, we discuss the diversity and evolution of Mimicry.
In the news
Bryozoans in the Cambrian!
Early mammal-cousins and the origins of tusks
These Cambrian worms appear to be the earliest known ‘hermits’
Condors caught producing babies without mating!
We’ve discussed convergent evolution on the podcast before, where two unrelated groups of organisms evolve similar traits for similar purposes. Mimicry also involves similar traits evolving in different organisms, but mimicry is about communication … or more accurately, miscommunication. Mimics copy the signals of other organisms, effectively pretending to be something they’re not, because that deceit is beneficial.
Mimicry typically involves at least one mimic species, at least one model (the species the mimic is mimicking), and at least one dupe (the species the mimic has evolved to fool). Not all mimicry is visual; mimics can resemble their models in terms of appearance, sound, smell, or other characteristics. And not all mimicry is defensive; mimicry can be useful for evading predators, fooling prey, or even convincing other species to do ones’ bidding.
Mimicry can involve the entire body, part of the body, or even features separate from the body, as in the case of cuckoo birds whose eggs mimic those of other birds, making it easier for the cuckoos to hide their own eggs in other birds’ nests.
Mimic evolution is superficially easy to understand. If a species benefits from resembling another, natural selection might gradually improve that resemblance, whether the benefit is related to avoiding predators, nabbing prey, securing reproduction, or otherwise. But the details can get very complex.
The evolution of mimcry has been intensely studied and discussed, but can be very difficult to sort out because of its complexity. It can sometimes be difficult to identify exactly what benefit some mimicry provides, what organism is supposed to be fooled, or which organism is the model and which is the mimic. There are many cases of convergent evolution among mimics and many cases of imperfect mimicry.
The evolution and ecology of masquerade, 2010 (technical)
Evolutionary origins of vocal mimicry in songbirds, 2018 (technical)
Imperfect mimicry and the limits of natural selection, 2013 (technical, paywalled)
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