Crooks, Double-Dealers and Dangerous Deceivers are Everywhere
THIS POST CONTAINS NO PHOTOS TO DISTRESS THOSE WHO ARE SQUEAMISH ABOUT SEEING 6 and 8 LEGGED CREATURES!
Firstly, a warning – I started this book with some disappointment, as I found Stevens’ writing a little dry. I very much like science books where the writer’s personality breaks through the often bland and perhaps deliberately neutral style of academic writing. Stevens stays closer to that neutral, factually heavy style. But, I think that if you have any interest in natural history, science and research, though his book is probably more geared to the academic, if you stick with it, I suspect you will very quickly get trapped in the sticky web which Stevens has spun, as if the reader were the innocent fly. Indeed, there is quite a lot about spiders in this book, who are indeed tricksters and deceivers. We might think that the prey blindly blunders, not seeing, into the web. In fact the web patterns mimic certain attractive (to insects) configurations in plants which act as visual guides, and might signal a pathway to nectar! And spiders also leave tempting little ‘decorations’ woven into their webs, which act as attractants so that meals choose, rather than just-by-chance-blunder, to fly at the web
This book is an amazing treasure chest of the incredibly complex varieties of behaviours which living organisms evolve, primarily in order to find food, avoid becoming food, or to find a mate. One very successful way of doing this is through deception, which Stevens shows is magnificently complex.
The book is particularly focused upon creepy crawlies, and I must admit I shuddered in a kind of disgusted fascination – particularly at the wealth of magnificent photos which will, I’m sure, haunt my nightmares. Insects and Arachnids are particularly sophisticated deceivers, and particularly prone to BE deceived by others of their kind. But there are also many many other species (including of course, our own!) who are sophisticated tricksters. Although the bulk of the trickery is directed towards (or against) other species, there are plenty of examples of deceiving your own kind (which of course homo sapiens seem to excel in, on a daily basis)
This is so much more than just a book which gives examples of trickery, as Stevens breaks down the many kinds of deception. So, for example, there are ‘aggressive mimics’ which mimic the appearance or behaviour of a harmless species, in order to be able to get closer to a prey species. The wonderfully named fangblennies are a species of fish which mimic another fish, the juveniles of cleaner fish. Cleaner fish have a symbiotic relationship with larger fish, nibbling the parasites and mucus on the surface of larger fish. The cleaner fish get a meal, their ‘clients’ get a good wash and brush up. Because the fangblennies mimic the colour pattern of cleaners, they can get close to the ‘client’ fish, and then feed – not on the parasites and mucus, but on a good old bite of the larger fish’s flesh. A bit like the Sweeney Todd of the fish barber community!
There are the converse, also, harmless creatures who mimic the appearance of more aggressive species, in order to avoid being eaten. There are common ‘warning, danger!’ signs in insects appearance – for example, the yellow/black colouration of bees and wasps. Birds will learn, after trying to eat one of these, that it can be a painful experience, and something which looks like this should be avoided in the future. Some perfectly tasty, harmless and unpainful bird dinners are other species like hoverflies, which mimic that warning! danger! banding well enough to be avoided.
Some species, whether predator or prey, mimic their environment in order to get closer to the lunch they will pounce on – the banding and colouration of some of the big cat family who live in jungles or savannahs, mimicking light/shade dappling – whilst some avoid being captured by blending into the background – insects which resemble the leaves of plants, the ridged background and colour of barky trees, and avoid being seen by birds.
What I also found fascinating was the recounting of the complexities of experiments to prove that what is going on is mimicry. And the reminder that we have to learn (or learn to structure experiments) in ways to perceive the world through the differently structured sense organs of other species, if we are to understand how, and whether, the trickery works.
For example, the larvae of a little beetle, the blister bug, has evolved a particularly devious collective trickery to deceive its intended dupe – a specific species of bee. The blister bug larvae collect together in a blobby dark cluster. To a human eye, the cluster looks nothing like a bee, but to a male Habropoda pallida, it looks – and smells, as the little beasts secrete pheromones which mimic the scent of the female bee – as if a ladylove is calling. The larval community basically are using the male bee as a form of transport, and collectively hop onto his back. When the disappointed lover bee finds the ‘female bee’ has suddenly turned out not to be no such thing, he carries on searching. The blister beetle larvae are really wanting to find the female bee too, because when the male finds her, they jump ship (or back) onto the female. They are still looking for transport – her nest, their intended destination, their restaurant. Blister beetle larvae dine on nectar, pollen – and scrumptious bees eggs!
Once past the first 20 pages, I have been thoroughly addicted and immersed in this, and recommend it highly. I’m sure academics in the field will rate it most of all, it is thorough, and impeccably referenced and equipped with photos, but it also proved to richly reward this lay reader for her early persistence.
I could have gone on and on and on about the many interesting varieties of deception, camouflage, mimicry and the like, but hopefully you will get this, and explore its fascinations for yourself
The book also left me with lots to think about regarding our own tricksy deviousness. The big difference is of course we have choices, and our reasons for choosing our own more conscious duplicities are rarely as simple as avoiding becoming lunch, or dying if we don’t manage to pounce on lunch, sometime immediately
Martin Stevens’ book is available in the UK, but not published in hard copy in the States till May. It is available on Kindle there, but you would miss the wealth of detailed coloured photos. On the other hand, as these are mainly 6 and 8 legged, the black-and-white ereader down load may be the best option for the sensitive.
I received this as a review copy, from Amazon Vine UK
And here (I’m not sure whether it’s visible outside the UK) is the wonderful Sir David Attenborough narrating this account of a drongo, caught red-billed in the act of lunch thievery from a party of meerkats
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