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Monday
Sep112017

Bright Beasts and Identity  Thieves

The jungles of Costa Rica are home to some of the most diverse communities of wildlife in the world. Across the many ecosystems in the country, every species has its own unique strategies for survival. Some animals will use camouflage to hide in plain sight from predators, or even their prey. Others may have a powerful bite as a defence mechanism, such as the bullet ant.

One strategy used by some creatures in Costa Rica is to display bright colours as a warning symbol that the species is toxic, poisonous or venomous. This tactic is known as ‘Aposematism’. An infamous example is the Central American coral snake (Micrurus nigrocintus). The coral snake is a striking animal, with bands of red, yellow and black running down its back. These snakes use their bright pattern to deter predators from trying to eat them. Predators learn to avoid the snakes by connecting the warning colouration with the foul taste of the snakes. This prevents the colourful snakes from falling victim to a hungry ocelot.

But there’s not just one species of coral snake in Costa Rica. Many different varieties of coral snake are found in Central America, and all are venomous. They are mimics of each other, all with red, yellow and black stripes. They are known as ‘Müllerian Mimics’ – a species which looks like a venomous (or poisonous or toxic) species, and is venomous itself. This benefits both species. Predators recognise the pattern of the mimics, and avoid eating both species of animal. However, not all mimics are poisonous. In the case of the coral snakes, an identity thief is taking advantage of their reputation with predators.

The false coral snake (Erytholamprus mimus) is a mimic of coral snakes, without the poisonous taste. They also have red, yellow and black stripes, but in a different order: true coral snakes have red stripes against yellow, while the imposters have red stripes against black. They exploit predators who think their pattern makes them dangerous, escaping a gruesome fate. These creatures are called ‘Batesian Mimics’, and benefit from looking like their poisonous doppelgangers, without having to reproduce the poisonous characteristics of the coral snake. An ingenious strategy for survival.

By Jack Bedford - Costa Rica Big Cats, Primates and Turtle Conservation Project

Find out more about Costa Rica Big Cats, Primates & Turtles Conservation.

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