Top Ten Arthropod Disguises

If you’ve taken any biology or ecology classes, you may have heard of mimicry. Mimicry is when an animal, plant, or other living organism (the mimic) copies the appearance or behavior of another (the model). More often than not, the mimic copies an organism more dangerous than itself to scare away predators. One of my favorite mimics has got to be the mimic octopus, which can change its appearance to resemble a variety of different animals. However, the phylum Arthropoda has some pretty fantastic mimics of its own. In no particular order, these are my top ten favorite arthropod disguises:

Ant-Mimicking Jumping Spiders

An ant-mimicking spider of the species Myrmarachne formicaria captured by spidereyes2020 on Flickr

I love jumping spiders. They dance, they have pretty adorable faces (for spiders), and now they’re dressing up like one of my favorite insects: the ant. Jumping spiders of the genus Myrmarachne are known for mimicking a specific genus or species of ant depending on their species, and their disguises are good enough to fool humans. Not only do the spiders strongly resemble ants in appearance, but they also walk like ants and move their forelegs about like antennae to really sell the act. Since most jumping spider predators don’t eat ants for fear of getting stung, bit, or swarmed by the whole ant colony, pulling off a good performance can be the difference between life and death for these tiny arachnid actors.

Thistledown Velvet Ant

A close-up-and-personal shot of a thistledown velvet ant uploaded to Flickr by the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

This is the second time a velvet ant has made an ArthroBlogger top ten list, and this little wasp also has a double dose of deception going on. Not only do females of this species lack wings and thus resemble ants (they’re actually wasps), but their fluffy setae make them look like pieces of fluff or creosote seeds being blown around by the wind when they walk. This disguise usually deters predators looking for an insect snack, but as a last resort, thistledown velvet ants, er, wasps, can pack a painful punch with their stingers.

Snake-Mimicking Caterpillar

The closet caterpillar I could find to Hemeroplanes triptolemus on Flickr. Thanks to Alison Day for the elephant hawk moth caterpillar!

I couldn’t find a photo of one on Flickr, but this caterpillar is too cool not to include in this list, so please please please look at the snake-mimicking caterpillar here, you will not be disappointed. Hemeroplanes triptolemus is one of the most amazing arthropod mimics around: while preferring to camouflage itself as a twig or leaf, this particular hawk moth caterpillar can also bear a striking resemblance to a viper when it sucks in air through the spiracles near its head region! The caterpillar is actually harmless, but most predators don’t stick around long enough to find out – especially when it pretends to strike at them with its fake snake head!

Curled Dead Leaf Moth

A beautiful Uropyia meticulodina moth by LiCheng Shih on Flickr

This spot almost went to the dead leaf mantis, but the detail of the curled wings made me choose the dead leaf moth. While far from the only leaf-mimicking animal out there (or even the only leaf-mimicking lepidopteran), Uropyia meticulodina takes the mimicry game to a whole other level – those wings aren’t actually curled! If you don’t believe me, take a look at this picture of the moth from above. That’s what I call a work of art. Mind. Blown.

Bumblebee Robber Fly

A bumblebee robber fly by Andrew Weitzel on Flickr

Once again far from the only bee-mimicking insects, robber flies of the genus Laphria have a certain knack for mimicking bumblebees. Unfortunately, the reason behind their acting game is a bit more sinister than most: while a lot of the arthropods on this list use their mimicry to hide from or scare away predators, Laphria robber flies are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They mostly sit and wait around for pollinators like bees and butterflies to come by, who believe the fly is just another flower-drinking buddy. When its prey gets too close, the fly pounces and devours it. These flies are pretty cute, and they eat pesky insects too, but it’s hard to forgive someone who actively betrays sweet little bumblebees.

Orchid Mantis

An orchid mantis by Pavel Kirillov on Flickr

Another beautiful insect mimic, the juvenile orchid mantis resembles a flower both to ambush pollinator prey and hide from predators. Yes, this is very similar behavior to that of the bumblebee robber fly, but at least the mantis is fooling its prey with the false promise of food rather than fake friendship. While native to Southeast Asia and Indonesia, these mantises are also popular pets but are happiest hiding amongst orchids and similar flowers in the rainforest.

Giant Swallowtail Caterpillar

A Giant Swallowtail caterpillar by Letícia Smania Donanzan on Flickr

Some caterpillars have eyespots to look like snakes, some blend in with leaves and branches, and some can do a remarkable impression of bird poo. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – if you’re small and squishy, all that matters is keeping yourself from getting eaten. And I’d say this particular disguise is a pretty good tactic.

Atlas Moth

A gorgeous Atlas moth by Rene Mensen on Flickr

Take a look at the wing tips of the Atlas moth. Do they remind you of anything? Perhaps… the head of a cobra? That’s right, I put two lepidopterans mimicking two different kinds of snakes on this list! Why? Because they’re both awesome-looking and exquisitely crafted insects, that’s why! God probably had a lot of fun making the ant and bee mimics, but with these guys, I think He was just showing off.

Ladybug Mimic Fungus Beetle

A fuzzy fungus beetle by giovzaid85 on Flickr

First of all, these guys belong to the family Endomychidae, which makes them “handsome fungus beetles” and I think that name is adorable. Second of all, just look at this cutey! He’s so fluffy, and the ladybug spots make him even cuter! This beetle mimics the coloration of a ladybug to warn predators of its terrible taste.

Stick Insects

A stick insect captured by Sid Mosdell on Flickr

Who better to end this list with than one of the most well-known and beloved mimics out there: the stick insect? These fantastic fellows come in a variety of colors and sizes and are found in forests around the globe, although they prefer to stay near the tropics. Stick insects are pretty great at blending in with the branches of bushes and trees, but if they are spotted by a predator, they can fall to the ground and blend in with the debris on the ground below. If that doesn’t work either, they can drop the act all together and startle foes by showing off their flashy, colorful wings. Although there are definitely some very tiny species, the stick insect Phobaeticus chani holds the record of being the world’s longest insect.

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