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A Cruddy Looking Success Story

Aug 15, 2016

With the Olympics wrapping up soon, sports enthusiasts and candid viewers alike have been plugged in and watching the next big event.  In nature's game of survival, there too are a variety of “headlines” that can amaze and inspire.  Just like the Olympic Games, nature’s intriguing storylines can take different shapes, colors, and actions as species try to stay ahead of the curve and live another day.  Some strategies are well-known, while other approaches are unfamiliar and may be downright surprising. 

A Common Theme

The distinctive black and orange pattern of the monarch butterfly is a tried and true example of a defensive signal towards birds.  The coloration says, “Hey, don’t eat me, I taste bad”.  A different species of butterfly, the viceroy, employs the same warning sign.  This kind of imitation is called Müllerian mimicry, when two species benefit from a similar appearance. However, if you look closely, the slightly smaller viceroy has a black stripe across the orange bars on its back wings. 

A Different Narrative

Although the adults employ the same coloration strategy, earlier in their life these two species use different playbooks.  Monarchs stick to the strategy of announcing their toxicity and are quite distinctive as white, yellow, and black striped caterpillars.  Viceroys on the other hand employ a totally different tactic.  If loud colors aren’t your thing and blending into the background like a chameleon isn’t possible, why not look like something inedible? Viceroys and other caterpillars take this to an extreme and resemble exactly what they don’t want to end up as, bird poop.  Masquerading as the substance falling from a southbound swallow, these tiny morsels of protein trick predators by looking downright cruddy. Research recently published in the journal Animal Behaviour has even gone far enough to prove that it isn’t just about the coloration of these caterpillars, but also how they act.  Poo colored larvae that curl up are less appealing to birds than the crusty looking caterpillars that are stretched out on a leaf. The competitive tournament of natural selection is pretty amazing and can come up with some surprising victors.

The Favorite versus the Local Underdog

Like the fan favorite, monarchs get a lot of attention for their special migratory feats and flashy style whether as an adult or a caterpillar. Viceroys on the other hand are like a true underdog and local favorite. They don’t get much respect, despite their ability to win when it counts. Viceroys don’t put too many miles under their belts, but duke it out by surviving within the wet prairies and scrubby marshes throughout the entire year. The Cinderella story of this species is their humble beginnings as a cruddy mimic, which allows them to survive by eating and overwintering on willow leaves, to emerge as that other orange and black butterfly the following summer. 

I'll admit that I’m a fan of stories that go off the beaten path and athletes that try unique, yet successful strategies. Perhaps that is why this local species and its different and somewhat cruddy backstory appeals to me. Hopefully, you will find it inspiring too. 

Viceroy_Cat_Soulliere2.jpg

Viceroy caterpillar
Hiding in Plain Sight
Some species of caterpillars, like viceroys, masquerade as bird poop in attempt to not attract the attention of hungry birds.

Viceroy_Cat_Soulliere1.jpg

Viceroy caterpillar curled up
Acting It Out
Recent research has shown that caterpillars masquerading as bird droppings are more convincing when they are curled up instead of stretched out.

Viceroy_0031_Nop.jpg

Viceroy butterfly
The Other Orange and Black Butterfly
Similar to monarch butterflies, the orange and black coloring of the viceroy butterflies warns birds that they aren’t good to eat.

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