Back to Biodiversity Explorer main pageGo to Iziko Museums of Cape Town home pageAbout Biodiversity Explorer - history, goals, etc.Send us your questions about southern African biodiversityPeople who have contributed content and images.Search Biodiversity Explorer

Insect mimicry 

Mimicry is a form of deception where one insect evolves a superficial resemblance to another resulting in a distinct advantage to the mimic, which usually enjoys protection or better access to food for either itself or its offspring. This does not happen by conscious effort on the part of the insect. The successful characteristics gradually evolve over thousands of years through a process of natural selection. Characters that evolve and increase chances of survival against predation are passed onto the following generations.


Unpalatable model Batesian mimicry - the mimic is palatable. Müllerian mimicry - the mimic is unpalatable.

Amauris ochlea. Family Nymphaidae subfamily Danainae,

Hypolimnas deceptor. Family Nymphalidae.


Danaus chrysippus. Family Nymphalidae, subfamily Danainae.

Hypolimnas misippus. Family Nymphalidae.

Acraea encedon. Family Nymphalidae, subfamily Acraeinae

Amauris albimaculata. Family Nymphalidae, subfamily Danainae.

Pseudacraea lucretia tarquinia. Family Nymphalidae.

Acraea johnstoni confusa. Family Nymphalidae, subfamily Acraeinae.

Insects have survived to become the most abundant animals on earth despite being a constant source of food for various predators such as birds, reptiles, mammals and amphibians. In part their success can be attributed to various survival strategies such as camouflage, deceptive markings and colouration, and chemical defense but the most fascinating is mimicry. 

Batesian mimicry. Poisonous and unpalatable insects usually display warning colours (red and black, orange and black, yellow and black or white and black) and predators learn to avoid them. A mimic insect, usually harmless and palatable to predators, over time gradually evolves colours similar to the poisonous and unpalatable model thereby enjoying protection against predation. This is called Batesian mimicry. This mimicry is effective as long as the numbers of the mimic do not exceed that of the model because predators will eventually associate the warning colours with palatability. 

Müllerian mimicry. Is when both the model and the mimic are distasteful. In this case, more than one species is protected by a common colour pattern resulting in fewer individuals within each species being killed before naive predators learn to avoid eating them.

Mimicry is not restricted to the butterflies. There are spiders that mimic ants, flies that mimic bees, and even groups of insects display behaviour that mimics an insect that could benefit them, for example beetle larvae that co-operate to mimic bees. Mimicry also occurs in other animal groups. It is not restricted to colouration but can take place as movement, for example the salticid spiders move like their prey, flies.


Contact us if you can contribute information or images to improve this page.

Biodiversity Explorer home   Iziko home   Search