Largest group of Australia's insects collaborate to avoid being eaten

February 8, 2017, Macquarie University
Credit: Matthew Bulbert

A group of insects that mimic each other in an effective golden sheen to fight predators has been discovered as the largest in Australia, a collaboration between Masaryk University and Macquarie University researchers has found.

The researchers discovered a new mimicry complex of more than 140 species that have evolved a distinctive golden sheen to deter , which is one of the largest mimicry groups – or complexes – in the world and the largest found in Australia.

Animals engage in mimicry to copy signalling characteristics of other animals, particularly to convey that they are not nice to eat, in an effort to avoid predators.

The results, published in journal eLife found that what is unique about this system is that each animal in this group displays a vivid golden sheen contrasting against a dark background, and this is proven to be an effective deterrent against predators.

"The golden colour is not typically associated with warning colours, but it is not only the distinctive colour that these insects have evolved, it is also the efficiency against predators. Despite the colours being attractive to our eye, for predators they serve as a warning that the thing they are going to attack is difficult to eat or nasty and so the predators avoid it," said lead author Professor Stano Pekar from Masaryk University, in the Czech Republic.

The majority of the species in this complex are ants, but the mimics also include wasps, spiders, true bugs, beetles and a group of insects called leafhoppers.

"Many animals use bright colours to warn a potential predator that they can defend themselves, and predators often learn to heed such warnings and avoid these animals in future. Wasps, for example, are armed with a harmful sting and advertise this fact through their distinctive yellow and black stripes," said co-author Professor Marie Herberstein from the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University.

"Animals that mimic another animal's warning signals can reap the benefit of being left alone by predators even if they are otherwise undefended."

To test the efficacy of the golden sheen defence, the researchers analysed the gut contents of 12 species of common, wild predators, including spiders, lizards and birds and found that very few of them ate the golden mimics.

"Most of these common predators avoided the mimics regardless of whether they were palatable or unpalatable to eat. Therefore species with this gold colour without defences such as spines and foul-tasting chemicals can benefit by deceiving predators into thinking they are unpalatable," concluded Professor Herberstein.

Explore further: Poor mimics can succeed as long as they mimic the right trait

More information: Stano Pekár et al. The golden mimicry complex uses a wide spectrum of defence to deter a community of predators, eLife (2017). DOI: 10.7554/eLife.22089

Related Stories

Researchers break the animal kingdom's colour code

April 16, 2009

Charles Darwin was fascinated by the colours of animals - he once wrote to his colleague Alfred Russell Wallace asking why certain animals were "so beautifully and artistically coloured".

Recommended for you

Nano-droplets are the key to controlling membrane formation

February 19, 2019

The creation of membranes is of enormous importance in biology, but also in many chemical applications developed by humans. These membranes are shaped spontaneously when soap-like molecules in water join together. Researchers ...

LOFAR radio telescope reveals secrets of solar storms

February 19, 2019

An international team of scientists led by a researcher from Trinity College Dublin and University of Helsinki announced a major discovery on the very nature of solar storms in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Pottery reveals America's first social media networks

February 19, 2019

Long before Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and even MySpace, early Mississippian Mound cultures in America's southern Appalachian Mountains shared artistic trends and technologies across regional networks that functioned in ...

Observation of quantized heating in quantum matter

February 19, 2019

Shaking a physical system typically heats it up, in the sense that the system continuously absorbs energy. When considering a circular shaking pattern, the amount of energy that is absorbed can potentially depend on the orientation ...

Lobster's underbelly is as tough as industrial rubber

February 19, 2019

Flip a lobster on its back, and you'll see that the underside of its tail is split in segments connected by a translucent membrane that appears rather vulnerable when compared with the armor-like carapace that shields the ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.