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What is Batesian Mimicry?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 02 December 2016
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Batesian mimicry is a form of mimicry in the animal world which involves masquerading as a dangerous animal species. Animals which exhibit Batesian mimicry typically don't have defensive traits like spines or poison, but they closely resemble animals which do, leading potential predators to leave them alone. Essentially, these animals, known as mimics, benefit from learned avoidance, taking advantage of the fact that other animals have learned to steer clear of animals with specific markings, known as models.

This type of mimicry is especially common among insects, but it also appears in other animals. For example, the coral snake has a very distinctive banded pattern which is copied by a harmless snake species; sometimes the mimicry is so good that naturalists even confuse the two snake species.

Rainforest animals are among the most diverse in the world, so it should come as no surprise to learn that Batesian mimicry was discovered in the Amazon. It is named after Henry Walter Bates, a 19th century British biologist who first published examples of harmless animals mimicking their more dangerous counterparts. In fact, many people are so familiar with Batesian mimicry that they are unaware of the fact that different types of mimicry can also be found in nature.

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Classically, Batesian mimicry involves a visual replication of an animal with aposematic coloring. Aposematic coloring is a pattern of coloration which is meant to act as a visual warning sign, sort of like a neon “danger” sign which says “don't eat me, because you will regret it.” This type of coloring is often brightly colored, ensuring that it can be clearly seen, even in dim conditions or by potential predators with limited color vision.

However, Batesian mimicry can also take an acoustic form. Some animals replicate the ultrasound communications of dangerous animals to frighten predators away, for example, while others mimic hunting calls to make animals think that they are in danger.

Batesian mimicry sometimes backfires. If too many copycats are around, predators may learn that the warning sounds or coloration are a ruse, and they will start snacking on the mimics. Often this means that the models will be threatened as well, because predators think that the coloring is no longer a danger sign.

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