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Down in Jungleland: Playing hide and seek, thanks to the deviousness of Mother Nature

The wickedest trick is played by those wily orchids which behave unspeakably towards some bees, wasps and flies. These orchids turn up dressed like very pretty lady bees, wasps or flies. When, say, a dude (and dumb) bee happens to pass by, he’s on to her in a second.

Written by Ranjit Lal |
Updated: February 4, 2018 10:42:35 am
butterflies, catterpillar, jungle, wild, animals, birds, nature, travel, forest, indian express, indian express news The bird dropping disguise is to prevent birds from picking them up.

It’s always been an aspect of the natural world that makes you suspect that Mother Nature is a deeply — and deviously — thinking entity, though she does try to dole out her favours with an even hand. Camouflage and mimicry, for example. Take the case of the caterpillar of the common lime leaf butterfly (and others of its ilk). It starts life as a tiny pearl-like egg and hatches into something that resembles a bird dropping. It’s a caterpillar, of course, programmed to binge. The bird dropping disguise is to prevent birds (who love caterpillars, and whose babies virtually live on them: soft, fleshy and packed with nutrients) from picking them up. No bird will be seen dead eating a bird dropping! And so the little bird-dropping caterpillar gets larger and larger, and one day changes its attire entirely. It’s now, probably, unable to pass off as a bird dropping. So, it changes into a lovely green suit — the exact shade of the leaf it is consuming. Post a binge, it will lie along the midrib of the leaf, perfectly still. If attacked now, it will rear up, protruding two blood-red filamentous protrusions (called osmaterium) from the top of its head, which is meant to resemble the flickering tongue of a snake, to scare away its tormentor. Eventually, after it has come to the end of its gastronomic binge, it spins a chrysalis, which is hung like a hammock from the plant. Here it will remain — largely still, twitching occasionally, as the magic transformation within commences. The pupa or chrysalis is, naturally, also leaf-green. But there’s yet another trick here, waiting to be played and it’s all a matter of timing.

If the eggs hatch, as let’s say they do during the monsoon, and the caterpillar emerges now, the pupa it spins will be leaf-green, just like all the foliage around it. But if, say, the caterpillars hatch at the end of the monsoons — in October — the pupa that develops now will be twig brown, because, by now, the foliage would be drying up, which basically means there is some pretty nifty timekeeping going on here, in the little caterpillar!

Of course, there are thousands of other astonishing cases of camouflage and mimicry. The chameleon and the octopus are celebrities in this field and so are many insects. Some (in what is called Batesian mimicry after the naturalist who first observed this) put on the attire of similar creatures which are poisonous — but remain harmless themselves. The chameleon and octopus even change their attire to blend into their backgrounds perfectly. They effect this change in seconds as they move from one place to another. I have suspected that at least some insects (I’ve noticed this with some dragonflies and moths) also seem to recognise which kind and colour of background to rest against, in order to blend in and virtually disappear from view.

The chief purpose of all this subterfuge is, of course, survival. While many creatures disguise themselves in order to prevent being eaten by predators, others — that is, predators — disguise themselves in order to remain unseen as they lie in ambush, while hunting. A tiger or leopard just vanishes in its jungle habitat and is able to easily sneak up to within striking distance of its prey. A vine snake, thin, green and reedy, probably gets the best of both, as perhaps does the praying mantis.

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But surely the wickedest trick is played by those wily orchids which behave unspeakably towards some bees, wasps and flies. These orchids turn up dressed like very pretty lady bees, wasps or flies. When, say, a dude (and dumb) bee happens to pass by, he’s on to her in a second. By the time he realises (if he does so at all, which is doubtful) he’s been diddled, the orchid has liberally anointed him with pollen. Off he goes, and then like a complete bumbling idiot, falls for the same trick with the next bee-orchid he meets. On this one he deposits the pollen he’s carrying from his first misguided tryst! The orchid gets fertilised and carries on with life and the bee, for all its waggle dancing brilliance, is left bereft!

There’s another orchid which has, in what you can only say is a case of poetic justice, gotten the better of a nasty species of spider wasp. This wasp (many wasps go in for this kind of thing) anesthetises spiders by stinging them, and then lays her eggs on them so her progeny can have fresh meat when they hatch. This orchid looks exactly like the spider-victim and is duly stung by the wasp, who gets a load of pollen in the bargain. So, when she goes to sting yet another spider, which again, actually, is an orchid, she deposits her load and that orchid can now have babies — while hers starve in the process! There is also, of course, a species of spider that looks like an orchid in order to entice (and eat) insects, but this is straightforward deception.

As for me, I’m still dying to see what kind of waggle dance that idiot bumbling bee will do once he realises he’s been taken for a royal ride by a pretty little bee orchid!

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher. 

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