The Web of Life (15) Deception


Honesty may be the best policy, but it’s important to remember that apparently, by elimination, dishonesty is the 2nd-best policy. ~ American comedian George Carlin

Every organism, and every facet of its functioning, evolves toward optimization. Efficiency comes from making the best use of limited resources. A wondrous aspect of biology is its high degree of coherency.

The flip side of efficiency goes beyond making the most of something: getting something for nothing. Deception is the means.

Deception is a very deep feature of life. It occurs at all levels – from gene to cell to individual to group – and it seems, by any and all means, necessary. ~ American evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers

Viruses are masters of disguise. Among other stratagems, they coat themselves in proteins of the host they hope to infect to go undetected.

Proteins stick to the viral surface, forming a protein corona. The virus remains unchanged on the genetic level. It just acquires different identities by accumulating different protein coronae on its surface depending on its environment. This makes it possible for the virus to use extracellular host factors for its benefit. ~ Swedish molecular biologist Kariem Ezzat

The most benign deception is to be left alone. Camouflage and mimicry commonly evolve to that end.

Defensive deception may extend to suggestive subterfuge. An animal approached by a killer may try to defend itself by giving its attacker a fright. Startling a predator makes it pause, at least allowing the prey a chance to escape, if the shock alone is not enough to dissuade. Some caterpillars startle their attackers by raising themselves up like small snakes.

The key to instilling horror is suddenness. Nothing gradual startles anything.

The most common spook is a sudden show of a large pair of eyes. Animals generally judge body size by the size of the eyes. The abrupt appearance of prodigious peepers provokes doubt. Some reptiles and birds sport outsized false eyes that they flash to make a potential attacker hesitate.

If shock is not an option, there is another way to make oneself unappetizing: death.

Vine weevils under duress tuck their legs under their barrel-shaped bodies, then roll onto their backs. These flightless, ponderous walkers have few viable alternatives to playing dead when threatened. The weevil wheeze often deters further interest from potential predators who prefer their snacks still kicking.

More manipulative are work-saving devices, where receivers get duped into acting against their own self-interests. Rubes often become dinner.

An anglerfish has a fleshy filament protruding from the front of its head that acts as deceptive advertising. Small fish that snap at an anglerfish’s lure get eaten. A deep-sea squid with a lure at the end of a long tentacle practices the same trick.

Margays are arboreal cats native to the Americas. They sometimes imitate the calls of various prey, such as tamarins, to lure them to dinner.

Certain species of Photurus female fireflies have 2 ways of flashing their lights. One pattern attracts males of her species for mating. The other mimics the flash of a smaller firefly belonging to the Photinus genus. A Photinus male answering the call of a Photorus female turns the amorous male into a meal: the firefly femme fatale kills and consumes him.

Sometimes females have had enough of males and just want to be left alone. Once her eggs have been fertilized, female Mooreland hawker dragonflies avoid further male encounters by feigning death. With good reason. Male hawker dragonflies don’t give up trying to mate, nor are they any help in protecting eggs. What’s more, they can pull sperm from prior inseminations by other males out of a female’s reproductive tract with their penises; a procedure fraught with health risk for the female.

Some ant queens are consummate percussionists. Equipped with unique, tiny, ridged organs, they stridulate royal fanfares that keep workers in line. Parasitic butterfly larvae residing in the colony precisely imitate a queen’s drumbeats – an act of musical piracy that induces worker ants to regurgitate food right into the parasites’ mouths.

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The botanical kingdom is rife with beguilement. 5% of flowering plants entice pollinators via various ruses. Others deceptively attract insects for their own consumption.

Carrion flowers, which smell of rotten meat, attract scavenging beetles and flies, which it then slathers with pollen.

Passion vines, beloved by some butterflies as food for their caterpillars, have yellow spots on their leaves that look as if eggs had been laid by a gravid female. This puts the butterflies off from laying their own eggs, as they suppose there will be too many larvae for the plant to feed.

Numerous carnivorous plants lure insects with sweet odors, only to devour them.