In 1879, when James Hingsley returned to Australia from Indonesia he brought back tales of an orchid that engulfed butterflies in its petals and devoured them alive. A carnivorous plant more beautiful and ravenous than any other. But that fantastical creature was no plant – it was a predator… dressed to kill. Blending in is a great way to stay alive, but it can be just as useful for the hunter as the hunted. That butterfly-eating beast from Indonesia? That isn’t an orchid at all. It’s an orchid mantis, an insect native to the rainforests of Southeast Asia. These beautiful bugs exhibit a behavior called aggressive mimicry: that’s using a disguise not to hide, but to stand out.
It’s counterintuitive, but you’ve probably come across one such creature before. Nope, not waldo. Like a snapping turtle’s wriggly worm-tongue, or an Angler fish’s luminous bait, some animals use the promise of food to conceal more deadly intentions. Some parasites even mimic their hosts’ prey to get swallowed. Other mimics rely on smellovision to do the trick. One spider attracts prey by sending out a chemical signal that female moths usually use to attract mates. Like the plants they’re named after, these mantises use their looks to flirt. Orchids display beautiful patterns to attract their favorite pollinators: bees and flies.
And with their petaled legs wrapped in pinks and yellows, orchid mantises can disappear amongst those forests of flowers. They wear such a good disguise, that every so often an insect *looking* for dinner *becomes* dinner. At least, that’s what scientists thought… until one noticed something weird: orchid mantises don’t actually need any flowers around for their disguises to work. They attract prey even *better* than the real thing. To understand why, we have to think – and see – like a flying insect. That means looking beyond our human senses. It would be hard for you or I to pluck an orchid mantis from a flowery background. Our visual system picks up on the shapes, edges and finer details of the mantis’s disguise. Our brains see petals, and think “flower”.
On the other hand, bees, flies – even beetles and butterflies see the floral fatales completely differently. Pollinator eyes and brains don’t pick up on the fine details, but the bigger picture comes in loud and clear. To these prey animals, an orchid mantis doesn’t just look like a flower, it looks bigger and brighter than a flower – and there lies the trick. Some flowering plants “get it on” with anything willing to stop by, but orchids are exclusive with their pollinators. One type only attracts male bees from a single species. If an orchid mantis’ disguise was too particular, it would limit the number of animals it might fool.
Instead, by looking a little like every flower, they can attract even more prey. These animal liars *fool* our brains too, but orchid mantises didn’t *evolve* to fool human brains. In fact, the way they deceive us falls into a totally different camouflage category: cryptic mimicry. Like their close kin, orchid mantises will even rock back and forth like a flower swaying in the breeze. We don’t know for sure, but scientists think looking like an orchid could also help conceal them from predators like birds, lizards, and monkeys in the same way. Pinning down how these predators and parasites evolved their deadly strategies of disguise has been almost impossible until recently. And we’re still figuring them out. Some disguises are so good, their true purpose can be hard to see. Stay curious.