Thursday Salute to Originals: Original Imitation
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And that sentiment is often true when it comes to humans. We mimic ideas, styles, attitudes, and more, all the time. But when it comes to the animal kingdom, imitation isn’t about staying trendy or cool. Imitation is sometimes the difference between life and death.
Take the caterpillar for instance. Smaller than a vast majority of its fellow creatures, the odds really aren’t in its favor for survival from a size standpoint. Because of this, some caterpillars have adapted chilling spines, venomous fur, or stinging barbs and bristles to ward off enemies. But a couple caterpillar species have taken a different approach: they have blatantly copied another creature’s appearance.
This is going to be hard to believe, but no, this is not a snake. It’s actually the Hawkmoth caterpillar’s clever serpent disguise.
When threatened, the Hawkmoth caterpillar puffs up and flips over, revealing an underside of markings that bear a striking resemblance to a snakes head. (If you look closely, you can see the caterpillars legs folded between the “eyes” of the snake.)
But the Hawkmoth isn’t the only caterpillar who mimics snakes. The Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar has also taken a cue from the serpent.
The faux eyes and yellow highlighting around the edges make the top of the caterpillar’s body look just like a snake, a stern warning to any predators thinking about downing it for a snack. The Spicebush Swallowtail will even rear its body (or the “head” of the snake) up to further enhance the illusion.
Now normally, we wouldn’t call the “stealing” or mimicking of another’s appearance original. Copying at its very core is the antonym of original, after all. But this case of imitation is different.
What amazes us most is how both of these caterpillars have genetically adapted their bodies to mimic the appearance of another creature, right down to proper “eye” placement and coloration. Different than just using patterning, texture, or hue to camouflage INTO their surroundings, the Hawkmoth and Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars have managed to manipulate their bodies to stand OUT from their surroundings as a completely different animal. And they have even adapted their defensive behaviors to further mimic the actions of a snake, further enhancing this illusion of actually perpetrating another creature! (Try as we might, there’s no way we as humans can naturally transform our bodies to look like Brad Pitt or Scarlet Johansen, unfortunately.)
And for those very reasons, we salute both the Hawkmoth and the Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars for their original take on survival and imitation. We’re sure the snakes are quite flattered, too!