Help us understand mimicry!

Picture1I have written about mimicry before, describing why most mimics are imperfect and how some mimics imitate not only the appearance of other animals but also their sounds and behaviour. Now, I need your help with an ambitious experiment to test theories about the evolution of mimicry. Most people know that there are harmless animals that have yellow and black stripes to look like stinging bees and wasps. But did you know that there are many thousands of such species, all with different degrees of “bee-ness” or “waspiness”? The new experiment is designed to compare 56 harmless hoverflies with 42 wasps and bees to measure how similar they are. That’s 2,352 unique comparisons! This information will allow us to test exciting new ideas about the evolution of mimicry. There’s only one catch…

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With his beard and odd dress sense, Uncle Sam would have made a fine entomologist!

This particular experiment will use the human brain as a processing tool and the power of the crowd to generate data. It’s a bit like “Strictly Come Mimicking” (or “Mimicking with the Stars“, if you’re in the US): you just need to rate how similar you think the two insects appear out of 10. I’d appreciate it greatly if you could take some time to run through the experiment below. Don’t do it thinking that there is an end, though – there are 2,352 combinations, remember, and the images are randomly paired on each screen! You can access the experiment here:

www.mimicryexperiment.net

My goal is to reach 10 ratings of each pair of insects. That means a total of 23,520 ratings. I know this is a long shot, but that’s the aim, people! Please do share it far and wide! I’ll share regular updates on the blog as the ratings come in (however many or few there are!).

The perils of predictability

Order is a standard part of nature, from the mathematical patterns found in natural structures to the predictable variation in sunrise times at different times of year. Indeed, animals and plants rely on regular, logical ordering of events.  For example, in my work on pollinator ecology bees rely on seasonal patterns in flower blooming as a food source. But this regularity is a double-edged sword: just as a bee can exploit regularity in flowering times, so can birds exploit the regularity in bee occurrence. A shared synchrony of life cycles brings costs and benefits. And this is where we bring in the Greek sea-god Proteus (pictured right). Proteus was a god who was able to change his form to avoid having to tell the future, and he has given his name to “protean” phenomena – those phenomena that are changeable or unpredictable. We can see a potential benefit in the plants altering their timing of flowering (of exhibiting protean flowering patterns) – if they remain predictable then the bees on which they rely for pollination are also predictable, which means that they are easy to exploit as food for birds. However, unpredictable flowering times might result in flowers occurring when there are no pollinators, which would be bad for both groups. Synchrony in the seasonality of flowers, insects, and birds is a complex association between populations (or even communities) of animals, and this makes evolutionary change slow.Read More »