Wannabes: outdoing wolves and sheep

Some are wolves in sheep’s clothing to get at sheep. Others are sheep in wolves’ clothing to evade wolves

By Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Wasp-mimicking Assassin Bug (Inara flavopicta) (2009-07-29) by Wei Song HwangLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Wasp-mimicking Assassin Bug
Inara flavopicta Stål 1859

This wolf literally wears the sheep. The juvenile Wasp-mimicking Assassin Bug accumulates piles of dead ants on its back—after it has sucked them dry! This cloaking device is two-fold. Predators see only a pile of dead ants that does not excite any interest. Meanwhile the juvenile Wasp-mimicking Assassin Bug probably uses the dead bodies to mask its own chemical scent so that it can better sneak up on its ant prey.

Wasp-mimicking Assassin Bug
Inara flavopicta Stål 1859

This wolf literally wears the sheep. The juvenile Wasp-mimicking Assassin Bug accumulates piles of dead ants on its back—after it has sucked them dry! This cloaking device is two-fold. Predators see only a pile of dead ants that does not excite any interest. Meanwhile the juvenile Wasp-mimicking Assassin Bug probably uses the dead bodies to mask its own chemical scent so that it can better sneak up on its ant prey.

Wasp-mimicking Assassin Bug (Inara flavopicta) (2011-04-23) by Wei Song HwangLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

The adult Wasp-mimicking Assassin Bug could not be more different from the juvenile. Shedding its dead ant cloak, the adult adopts the likeness of yellow-black wasps (hence the common name). The adults now switch food dietary preferences and hunt down wasps. This species is known only from the ASEAN region from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

Bearded Leatherjacket (Anacanthus barbatus) (2014-10-27) by Heok Hui TanLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Bearded Leatherjacket
Anacanthus barbatus Gray, 1830

This species is unusual among filefishes in being long and slender.

It also has a fleshy protuberance at the tip of its lower lip that is not found in other filefishes.

Its long tail is also not found in other filefishes.

Bearded Leatherjacket (Anacanthus barbatus) (2014-10-27) by Biodiversity Heritage LibraryLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

This species drifts about near the seafloor with head pointing downwards and seems to mimic mangrove shoots or sea pens. This species was first discovered in Singapore and was first illustrated by John Edward Gray in 1830. Apart from its curious appearance, it does not appear to be eaten nor valued as an aquarium fish. Outside of the ASEAN region the species is found in Australia, India, Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka. Within ASEAN, it is found in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore.

Big-eyed Mountain Keelback (Pseudoxenodon macrops) (2014-04-28) by Evan S. H. QuahLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Big-eyed Mountain Keelback
Pseudoxenodon macrops (Blyth, 1855)

Sometimes called the “false cobra”, this species also has a hood and has a habit of rearing up its head. The exact function of this cobra mimicry is not known. It is also thought that this resemblance backfires when pitted against humans as they simply kill them thinking that it is a cobra. Though venomous, it is thought to be harmless to humans.

Big-eyed Mountain Keelback (Pseudoxenodon macrops) (2014-04-28) by Evan S. H. QuahLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Researchers have also found that it is able to feign death when threatened, which is perhaps a more effective defence against humans. Outside of the ASEAN region this species is found in Bhutan, China and India. Within the ASEAN region it is found in Laos, Peninsular Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

Bluebottle (Physalia utriculus) (2007-09-13) by Iffah IesaLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Bluebottle
Physalia utriculus (La Martinière, 1787)

Species of the genus Physalia superficially resemble jellyfish but are not closely-related. They are also colonial animals, with distinct specialised animals (called “polyps”) playing different roles. For example, a gas-filled polyp forms the float. The Bluebottle is the Indo-Pacific sibling of the better-known Portuguese Man O’ War. This species is found throughout the Indo-West Pacific. In the ASEAN region, it is known with certainty from Thailand.

Red Winged Green Giant Stick Insect (Eurycnema versirubra) by Francis Seow-ChoenLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Red Winged Green Giant Stick Insect
Eurycnema versirubra Serville 1838

Stick insects have adapted to resemble twigs in order to avoid predation. The shape, colour and behaviour of the Red Winged Green Giant Stick Insect all play a part in this masquerade. This species has long been bred in captivity in Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore. Fed on guava leaves, their droppings (“frass”) were used to make a sort of tea that was prescribed for a wide range of ailments.

Red Winged Green Giant Stick Insect (Eurycnema versirubra) by Francis Seow-ChoenLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Scientists have found that this species does not absorb vitamin E from its diet and its frass are therefore rich in the substance. Perhaps this explains some of its perceived therapeutic qualities. The world authority on these animals found that this species is not native to Peninsular Malaysia or Singapore but was imported from Timor. Ironically, the locals there consider them to be highly poisonous and kill them on sight. This species is found in the ASEAN countries of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, where it has been introduced from Timor.

Painted Mock Viper (Psammodynastes pictus) (2016-07-18) by Evan S. H. QuahLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Painted Mock Viper
Psammodynastes pictus Günther, 1858

Like the Big-eyed Mountain Keelback, this species also mimics species of the viper family which are far more venomous. The mimicry also encompasses both the superficial appearance and its behaviour—all the hallmarks of a wannabe. This species is considered to be harmless to humans.

Painted Mock Viper (Psammodynastes pictus) (2016-07-11) by Evan S. H. QuahLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

It inhabits shallow streams and swamp forests. It feeds on small fish, frogs and freshwater prawns. This species is only found in the ASEAN region, from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Zebra Flat-backed Millipede (2009-04-28) by Somsak PanhaLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Zebra Flat-backed Millipede
Enghoffosoma zebra Likhitrakarn, Golovatch & Panha, 2014

This species of millipede has a body colouration that is similar to that of a zebra’s.

Zebra Flat-backed Millipede (2011-05-18) by Somsak PanhaLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Perhaps like a zebra, this colouration pattern plays a role in helping to break up the profile of the animal as a form of camouflage.

Zebra Flat-backed Millipede (2011-05-18) by Somsak PanhaLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

This species can be found in deciduous and mixed forests. It is widely distributed from the lower part of north-eastern Thailand to the south of Laos. Nothing else is known of its biology.

Big-eyed Mountain Keelback (Pseudoxenodon macrops) (2014-04-28) by Evan S. H. QuahLee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Some animals are copycats. Whether it is to free-ride on the threatening reputation of the copied or just a matter of “great minds thinking alike”; Nature is full of examples of similar designs—probably because they work so well!

Credits: Story

Text:

Bearded Leatherjacket
Kelvin K. P. Lim
(National University of Singapore, Singapore)

Big-eyed Mountain Keelback
Painted Mock Viper
Evan S. H. Quah
(Universiti Sains Malaysia, Malaysia)

Bluebottle
Iffah Iesa
(National University of Singapore, Singapore)

Red Winged Green Giant Stick Insect
Francis Seow-Choen
(Singapore)

Wasp-mimicking Assassin Bug
Wei Song Hwang
(National University of Singapore, Singapore)

Zebra Flat-backed Millipede
Somsak Panha
(Chulalongkorn University, Thailand)

Images:

Bearded Leatherjacket
Biodiversity Heritage Library
(http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/)
Heok Hui Tan
(National University of Singapore, Singapore)

Big-eyed Mountain Keelback
Painted Mock Viper
Evan S. H. Quah
(Universiti Sains Malaysia, Malaysia)

Bluebottle
Iffah Iesa
(National University of Singapore, Singapore)

Red Winged Green Giant Stick Insect
Francis Seow-Choen
(Singapore)

Wasp-mimicking Assassin Bug
Wei Song Hwang
(National University of Singapore, Singapore)

Zebra Flat-backed Millipede
Somsak Panha
(Chulalongkorn University, Thailand)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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