The Caterpillar Defense
December 11, 2014 7:08 AM   Subscribe

"Let’s say you’re a baby bird. You can’t fly. You can only wait for your parents to bring you food. You are, in other words, easy pickings. So what might you do to avoid getting snatched up by a predator? If you’re a cinereous mourner, ... you grow brilliant orange plumage. You make yourself absurdly easy to see."
posted by dhruva (16 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Love it - You may also enjoy WTF, Evolution?
posted by Gor-ella at 7:20 AM on December 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Target sample

Whoops! (Only clicked on the second link)
posted by bird internet at 7:25 AM on December 11, 2014

I can say from experience that those spiky fluffy caterpillars sting like the dickens and I would not eat that baby bird, just in case.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:32 AM on December 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Speaking of dickens, doesn't Cinereous Mourner sound like a character in a Dickens novel?

(also, how the hell can evolution be so fucking good?)
posted by Flashman at 7:35 AM on December 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

Also, there are some colobine primates (a group of primates that mostly eat leaves, in Africa and Asia) in which the babies are brightly colored - WHITE! ORANGE! - but the adults are drab - black. grey. The hypothesis there is that having such conspicuous babies freaks the parents and other adults in the group out so much that they are very very attentive until they lose their conspicuous colors and become boring adults.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:42 AM on December 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

That is just fantastic. Birds are awesome. Evolution is awesome.
posted by rtha at 7:53 AM on December 11, 2014

I work for a science textbook publisher and I just sent this and WTF, Evolution to a bunch of my colleagues, most notably the editor of our evolution textbooks. Thanks for sharing!
posted by chatongriffes at 8:10 AM on December 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Brilliant! Also ironic because cinereous literally means "ashy grey", as in the adult plumage.

Which means it would be the perfect name for a chimney sweep.
posted by a halcyon day at 9:07 AM on December 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Flashman: (also, how the hell can evolution be so fucking good?)
Just dumb luck.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:14 AM on December 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

What's interesting about this is that the secondary strategy--staying still and squirming if something approaches is probably maladaptive in any other scenario other than them looking like a caterpillar. So, it almost certainly happened that the visual mimicry evolved first, and only after that could the selection for behavior unfold. It also suggests that the visual mimicry by itself, with no other changes, probably increased selection for those individuals in the population.
posted by thewumpusisdead at 10:25 AM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

One of the commentors in the first link suggests that this defense tactic may also apply to the Elegant Mourner. Lo and behold, I think they might be right.

So now I wonder: given the differences in appearance between the adults in the respective species - I mean, the Elegant Mourner is in its own separate genus - how far back does this adaptation go? Damn nature, you awesome.
posted by ZaphodB at 12:58 PM on December 11, 2014

Elegant Mourners and Cinereous Mourners are both in the family Tityridae, along with a bunch of other birds (like the Green-backed Becard and the White-naped xenopsaris). Speckled Mourners are in the same genus as Cinereous Mourners (Laniocera, for those keeping track at home), but their babies have not been noted to look particularly like caterpillars, at least as far as I can find. Elegant mourners seem to be in their own genus (Laniisoma) all alone. It's possible that this characterizes the family but nobody's noticed yet, or that it evolved in an ancestor common to Laniisoma and Laniocera but Speckled Mourners evolved a different strategy after splitting from Cinerous Mourners, or Cinerous and Elegant mouners evolve this strategy independently. Batesian mimicry has evolved a number of times in other organisms.
posted by ChuraChura at 3:45 PM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

(^ this comment brought to you by terrible procrastination)
posted by ChuraChura at 3:46 PM on December 11, 2014

I am in favor of your procrastination.
posted by rtha at 3:56 PM on December 11, 2014

posted by homunculus at 2:40 PM on January 1, 2015

How did you do that?

Also, wouldn't it be horrible and wonderful if there was an animal that imitated human infants as a defense mechanism?
posted by bq at 6:33 PM on January 1, 2015

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