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Masters of Deception: The Animal Kingdom’s Greatest Tricksters

The ability of individuals to deceive one another for personal gain is not limited to unscrupulous homo sapiens like the boys of Stratton Oakmont. On the contrary, the natural world is full of species who cut out a life for themselves solely on their ability to convince everybody that they are something they’re not. In multiple ecosystems, one animal’s ability to fool another can both secure a full belly or avoid winding up in one. We all know about the milk snake’s (above) ability to convince the snake eaters of the world that it’s actually the highly poisonous venomous coral snake, but here are 5 tricksters about whom you might not know:

The Mimic Octopus – Thaumoctopus mimicus

The mimic octopus belongs in the hall of fame of animal mimicry. In most cases of animal mimicry, a species will only steal the look of one other animal, but the mimic octopus may copy the appearance of up to 10 – including anemones, shrimp, and jellyfish. And like any good poser – the mimic octopus naturally chooses only the most bad ass animals to imitate. It can bend its body into a tear drop shape to look like the poisonous banded sole, tuck all but two striped arms into a hole to look like the poisonous banded sea snake, or drift along with “fins” spread wide to look like the poisonous lion fish.

HT: National Geographic

The Alcon Blue Butterfly – Maculinea rebeli


Ant colonies are pretty regulated places, and they don’t appreciate visitors. How, then, does the caterpillar of the Alcon blue butterfly manage not only to infiltrate ant colonies unharmed, but also become the golden child of the group, eventually being cared for by the host species with more attention than they give to their own brood? It all comes down to that sweet ant smell. By emitting a very particular smell that is immediately reminiscent of an ant larva, the caterpillar “convinces” adult ants that he’s not some other species wandering too close to the gates – he’s a lost little larva! The ants promptly drag the caterpillar to their nests and care for it like it’s one of their own, all the while not noticing how much bigger and pinker the caterpillars are than the true ant larvae. As for how they get the royal treatment, the caterpillars actually manage to produce a sound that is so similar to that of the queen ant that it sets off the “better not keep her hungry” response in the workers ants, causing them to shower the impostor with the finest fruits of the kingdom.

HT: Discover Magazine

Leaf Fish – Polycentridae Family

We’ve all heard of prey species blending into their surroundings to avoid detection by predators, but the leaf fish pulls this trick for the opposite reason. By perfectly mimicking the dead, drifting leaves found in tropical rivers of South America, they can casually move over to a prey species and then suddenly snatch it out of the water. To pull the trick off, it keeps its body incredibly still, moving only its transparent pectoral fins. The video below shows how hard it is to distinguish the leaf fish from actual dead leaves and how fast the leaf fish can snap up its prey with its extendable, vacuum-creating mouth. Subtitles included for those of you who want to practice your Indonesian.

HT: National Geographic

Leucochloridium paradoxum flatworm


Trickery is perhaps the least unsettling stage of this nasty little creature’s life cycle. Snails first ingest L. paradoxum eggs when they graze on bird crap on the forest floor. Soon the eggs hatch and form brood sacks in the snail’s eye stalks. At around the same time, the snail’s brain is taken over by the parasite, which directs it to leave the shade and head for high branches to show off its nasty disease to the whole world. Here’s where the trick comes in. The pulsating eye stalks work to imitate wriggling maggots which hungry birds can quickly spot. The birds swoop down and pluck the tentacles off of the snail… infecting themselves with the parasite all over again. But even when they are de-tentacled, the snails are not even given the courtesy of death. They go on living, regenerating their tentacles so that the remaining younger L. paradoxum can eventually move into them and attract more birds.

HT: Wired

The Sleeper CichlidNimbochromis livingstonii

Yes, aquatic predators are scary if you’re a tiny little prey fish – but not if that predator is dead and rotting on the bottom of a lake, right? If anything, it’s time to turn the tables on that son of a bitch and feast on him in celebration. Careful, tiny water dwellers who are also Nerdist readers, the sleeper cichlid takes advantage of this very ecological impulse. By laying completely still on the bottoms of the African rift lakes, the sleeper cichlid creates the illusion that it is dead. When those species not above eating questionable sushi come by for a bite, the cichlid suddenly bursts back to life and swallows the scrounger. Don’t mess with dead bodies, guys.

HT: Animal World


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  1. Susan says:

    Snakes are not poisonous they are venomous