The insect world is full of creatures who have practically raised the principles of disguise and concealment to an art form. For predators and prey alike, camouflage is a critical survival tool, with coloration, patterning and even physical shape all playing roles in helping insects to conceal themselves from their hunters — or aid the hunters in hiding from their unsuspecting prey until it’s time to strike.
Many insects are particularly good not merely at blending in with one’s natural habitat but also at outright mimicry. They have evolved colors, patterning and other characteristics that allow them to resemble, with startling accuracy, other creatures or objects. For predators, it’s usually something innocuous or familiar. For prey, the goal is to mimic something unpalatable or potentially dangerous to a predator.
It would take a book to list all of the amazing insects that have evolved to hide in plain sight. But here we’ll take a look at five of our favorites.
1. Stick Insects
You have to appreciate the irony that the first insect on this particular list is perhaps the most famous. Being well-known for your ability to hide in plain sight seems counterintuitive, but that’s how it is when you’re a stick insect or walking stick, as they are also known.
Belonging to the order Phasmodea, stick insects live on almost every continent in the world — there are around 3,000 different species — and unsurprisingly tend to live in wooded habitats, where they do an uncanny job of mimicking sticks, twigs and sometimes leaves to evade predators. Ranging from as little as a half-inch to as long as two feet, stick insects are innocuous to humans, and some people even keep them as pets.
However, in large numbers, the herbivorous insects can do notable damage to the ecosystems where they feed, defoliating plants and even trees. For this reason, many countries, including the U.S., have made it illegal to transport or keep any non-native stick insect species.
2. Leaf Beetles
It’s not often that modern entomologists get to discover a new example of an insect engaging in mimicry or camouflage, but in 2018, researchers did an analysis of leaf beetles and came to surprising realization: While other insects, such as the aptly named giant leaf insect or the Indian leaf butterfly, mimic the appearance of leaves for concealment, the leaf beetles in this study were seen to turn their food source, an actual leaf, into a form of camouflage.
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The study authors observed that, while feeding, adult beetles made themselves harder to spot simply by eating holes in leaves in a very specific way. They created numerous holes of a relatively uniform size, proportional to their body. “The presence of holes makes predators’ visual search harder,” researchers noted, giving the industrious beetle a chance to escape when attack is imminent.
3. Bee-Like Robber Fly
Also known as assassin flies, robber flies are spectacular predators. They’re fast and deadly, able to catch and kill prey that is much larger than they are. They can also do their dirty work in mid-flight, which requires an impressive degree of speed and skill. While they don’t hunt prey as big as humans, they’re more than capable of making an impression on one. If you get in a robber fly’s way, it might bite you and it’ll hurt — the flies produce a toxic saliva that you’ll definitely feel once they inject it into you. On the other hand, the saliva won’t paralyze you or dissolve your innards, as it does with insects, so count yourself lucky.
There are nearly 7,000 different species of robber flies in the world — about 1,000 in North America alone. And while they all have perfected the art of killing, at least a few species of robber flies have also done a masterful job of adapting to mimic the coloring, stripes and appearance of bees and wasps, which they eat. This adaptation is a two-for-one deal: The wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing disguise lets them hunt near hives and blend in among their prey. Meanwhile, taking on the appearance of a bee or wasp is a great visual bluff to ward away the fly’s own predators.
4. Praying Mantis
Like the walking stick, the praying mantis is another hall-of-famer in the annals of insect camouflage. You’ll find more than 2,000 different species of mantis the world over, and most of them have evolved coloration to help them blend in perfectly with their surroundings.
But some mantis species take concealment very seriously. So-called flower mantises, for example, can physically resemble different flower types (such as orchids), and will sway in the breeze like a flower to complete the effect. They can even absorb UV light the way plants do to attract UV-sensitive insects. Other mantis species can also resemble twigs and even dead leaves.
In 2013, researchers in Peru came across what they thought was a strange-looking wasp. In fact, it was an orange-red praying mantis — a previously unknown species — that was clearly mimicking not only the color and shape of a wasp, but was also copying a typical wasp’s movements. Talk about commitment to the role.
5. Hummingbird Moth
Impressive as it is to be able to mimic sticks, leaves or other bugs with startling accuracy, some insects play the imitation game at championship levels by mimicking other animals, including reptiles and birds. Several caterpillars, for example, can look uncannily like a dangerous snake — right down to making a fake strike — when threatened.
But if mimicry were an Olympic event, all of the gold medals would belong to moths. A number of moth species have been known to mimic everything from spiders and wasps to frogs and owls — yes, owls. As impressive as that may be, our favorite among moth mimics is the adorable hummingbird moth.
As the name suggests, the moths look and even move like a hummingbird, right down to their distinctive hovering form of flight. Like the birds they resemble, these moths enjoy nectar, which they sip through their long snouts. They’re also good pollinators and are beneficial to have around your flower beds. In fact, you could well have hummingbird moths in your garden right now, hiding in plain sight, like the masters of disguise that they and so many other insects are.