Philip E. Howse
Reviewed by Hugh D. Loxdale
This is another of Philip Howse’s recent publications on insect mimicry, published by the same publisher in the butterfliesandamazonia.com series. It is a continuation and expansion of the previous books he has written on the topic, including Butterflies: Messages from Psyche (2010), Giant Silkmoths: Colour, Mimicry & Camouflage (2011) (co-authored with Kirby Wolfe), Seeing Butterflies: New Perspectives on Colour, Patterns & Mimicry (2014), Bee Tiger: The Death’s Head Hawk-moth through the Looking-glass (2021), and Vicar of the Amazon (2022a). In the present book, he expands the range of models not only to those normally used by insects to conceal themselves, e.g., leaves, twigs, logs, lichens, etc., but also ‘aggressive mimicry’ as practiced by animals such as praying mantids ‘pretending’ to be orchid flowers and crab spiders likewise mimicking flower petals in order to deceive and, by so doing, get nearer to their intended prey. He naturally also mentions insects that mimic the bodies of carnivorous beetles and spiders, scorpions, heads of piranha fish, snakes, roosting bats, and even the stripy heads of tigers! In the words of the Duke of Wellington (1769–1852) “If you believe that, you’ll believe anything” (Partington, 1992), but in these various cases, it appears to be true…unless other logical explanations can be proposed.
The title of the book comes from the extraordinary example of spider mimicry of the hindwing underside of the tropical Metalmark Butterfly, Helicopis gnidus F. (Lepidoptera: Riodinidae) of South America, and the Duck-billed Platypus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus (Shaw) (Monotremata: Ornithorhynchidae), which was considered to be a hoax when it was first discovered in Australia in the late 18th century (Howse, 2022b). Here the analogy is that many of the examples of mimicry as espoused in this book are so unbelievable that they may likewise be considered by some to be over-exaggerations of the true state of affairs or at worse, direct hoaxes, but the evidence is supportive of their being the ‘real deal’. The example of the fruit fly, Goniurellia ridens (Hendel) (Diptera: Tephritidae), with black silhouettes of ant-like insects on both forewings, presumably a ruse to distract a would-be predator and encourage it to attack the wings rather than the body of the intended prey, is incredible beyond belief (p. 70).
Other examples of mimicry concern instances whereby insects show colours and livery representative of toxic or venomous models, either Batesian or Müllerian models (Cott, 1940; Forbes, 2011). The author provides many fascinating examples of such mimicry. For sure, if a person doesn’t believe in evolution when they first pick up this book, they are very likely to do so by the time they get to the end of it. I remember, whilst staying on holiday in Bavaria some years ago, finding a syrphid fly wasp mimic, Temnostoma vespiforme (L.) (Diptera: Syrphidae), so perfect in its disguise and even behaviour, that I had to look closely before I was convinced it truly wasn’t a wasp (the giveaway of course was the fact that it only had two wings and not four; Loxdale, 2014).
Although insects are attacked by numerous examples of their own Class (everything from robber flies, carabid beetles, gnats, ant lions and lacewing larvae, syrphid larvae, praying mantids, wasps and parasitic insects, to name but a few), small insectivorous birds, mammals, spiders, amphibians and reptiles also constitute major predators. The visual acuity of birds is well-known and must be a predominant driving force accelerating the selective forces, positive and negative, relentlessly driving and shaping the evolution of mimicry (Cott, 1940; Howse, 2010, 2021, 2022a, b; Howse & Wolfe, 2011; Loxdale, 2014). Whilst this is assumed to have occurred over countless aeons, maybe hundreds of millions of years, perhaps the result in terms of mimetic adaptations occurs much more quickly than imagined, the result of selective processes on random, stochastic phenotypic–genotypic changes (the result of genomic mutations). This is because ecology is at the cutting edge of evolutionary processes and is occurring in real time, perhaps milliseconds (e.g., the deadly strike of a praying mantis capturing its unsuspecting prey), something that Howse emphasises in his books (cf. also Loxdale, 2010).
What is most strange, in my view, is that although the governing process is clearly driven by selection, and ultimately has its basis rooted in adaptations leading to ‘survival of the fittest’, this selection is to a large degree passive, not active, unlike the case of a gazelle jinking and weaving to avoid the claws and jaws of a cheetah, or a fly escaping the clutches of a jumping spider. Certainly, this appears to be true for those insects displaying cryptic camouflage, but perhaps not so for butterflies like the Peacock, Aglais io (L.) (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae) showing scary eye spots when disturbed, or owl butterflies in South America (Caligo spp.) (Howse, 2022a, b). It is a case of ‘the less said, the sooner mended’, as the old adage goes, or more realistically, doing as little as possible, hoping that the danger will pass. In other words, keeping still if you are cryptically coloured/shaped, and only flash your warning signal if you have to, a kind of Müllerian signal. With many other Müllerian mimics and certainly Batesian mimics, the signal is ‘on’ all the time… if the would-be predator can read that signal and is not naïve, i.e., has had little or no experience of the noxious/ venomous nature of the prey… assuming that the aposematic signal is not itself a ruse.
This is a large, heavy book, with Satin gauge paper (> 120 gsm) and thick cover boards (3 mm). Hence it is a ‘coffee-table’ volume. Having said that, the colour photos are amazing and engaging, the text well-written and the narrative fluid, as we have come to expect from this master of natural history writing. Unfortunately, it boasts (if that is the right word to use) a plethora of typos and other errors, including some misspelt Latin names and incorrect labelling of photos, which need to be corrected in a revised edition.
Despite this, it is a fascinating book and I strongly recommend it to fellow entomologists and others interested in natural history. One might also say that it would surely be informative to those who are not aware of the sheer complexity of adaptive processes, here in terms of the intended prey escaping being eaten, and the predator capturing that prey, involving a high degree of patience, skill and sometimes ‒ as with the Orchid Praying Mantis, Hymenopus coronatus Olivier (Mantodea: Hymenopodidae) from the tropical forests of Southeast Asia ‒ ‘skulduggery’, to anthropomorphise somewhat.
Cott, H. B. (1940). Adaptive Coloration in Animals (1966 reprint). London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.
Forbes, P. (2011). Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage. Yale University Press, New Haven and London.
Howse, P. (2010). Butterflies: Messages from Psyche. Papadakis Publisher (New Architecture Group Ltd.).
Howse, P. (2014). Seeing Butterflies: New Perspectives on Colour, Patterns and Mimicry. Papadakis Publisher (New Architecture Group Ltd.).
Howse, P. (2021). Bee Tiger: The Death’s Head Hawk-moth Through the Looking Glass. Brambleby Books, Taunton.
Howse, P. (2022a). Vicar of the Amazon ‒ The Reverend Arthur Miles Moss ‒ In the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Walter Bates. Butterflies and Amazonia Publishers.
Howse, P. (2022b). The spider-winged Cupid and the Platypus. (Butterflies and Amazonia Books). Butterflies and Amazonia Publishers.
Howse, P. & Wolfe, K. (2011). Giant Silkmoths: Colour, Mimicry & Camouflage. Papadakis Publisher (New Architecture Group Ltd.).
Loxdale, H.D. (2010). Ecological Entomology (special issue) 35, 155-164.
Loxdale, H.D. (2014) Antenna 38 (4), 219-225.
Partington, A. (1992) (ed.). The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. 4th edn. Oxford University Press, New York (p. 727, no 6, Duke of Wellington quote).