Mimicry and Bad Taste

Mimicry and Bad Taste:

Originally this was a reply to Richard Coyne’s blog on Inconspicuous Architecture http://richardcoyne.com/2011/12/31/inconspicuous-architecture/

I was frustrated at not being able to insert images into my response so decided to set up this blog.

I hope this isn’t nit-picking or spoiling a good story with needless facts, but this sent me to my battered copy of Mimicry in Plants and Animals, Wickler (1968).

It appears that what Roger Caillois called mimicry might now be called camouflage or cryptic behavior; with examples such as: –

Flat fish matching the seabed background to make it harder for predators to find them.

Flatfish, Sole (Solea solea), on artificially dark background

Flatfish, Sole (Solea solea), hidden on sandy background

Spiders’ webs with pseudo-platforms, which appear to be occupied by spiders, reducing the chance of the real spider being predated in any particular attack.

In both cases the individual’s chances of survival are increased.

Mimicry as such seems to have the following basic forms: –

In Batesian Mimicry one species (the mimic) comes to resemble another unpalatable species (the model). The resemblance can be visual, olfactory, acoustic or behavioral. It is important that the model is unpalatable rather than actually poisonous so that predators have a chance to learn from their mistakes.

Swallow-tailed butterfly, model on left slightly lager mimic on right

In Müllerian Mimicry several species, all of which are unpalatable, in effect club together to optimise predator learning. If these all give the same signal to a predator then they reduce their individual share of the necessary teaching predation.

Batesian and Müllerian Mimicry Rings

Mimicry rings in vertical columns. Models are above horizontal grey lines, mimics below. Batesian mimicry is similarity across a horizontal grey line. Müllerian mimicry is similarity between butterflies that are all above a grey line.

Mertensian Mimicry is where a poisonous species mimics a less poisonous but lesson teaching species.

In these cases it is in the interest of both mimic and model that predators can easily recognize them. They therefore need to announce their presence rather than hide it.

Aggressive Mimicry is where a predator (or parasite) mimics another species that is harmless to the prey (or host) species allowing the predator (or parasite) to avoid detection. The primary example is the Zone-tailed hawk which has evolved to resemble vultures. Vultures do not threaten the hawk’s prey because they are carrion feeders.

Brood-parasites such as cuckoos are also an example of aggressive mimicry.

Eggs of brood-parasitic cuckoos and their hosts

In each pair host egg to the left of (the usually larger) cuckoo egg. Grey lines separate cuckoo species. European cuckoo is top left section, with top left to bottom right eggs of reed-warbler, blue-headed wagtail, red-back strike and redstart.

Mimesis is between Camouflage and Mimicry and is where a species takes on the form of another object or organism to which signal receivers are generally indifferent.

In both these later cases it is not in the interests of the mimic to be easily recognised for what it is.

In architectural terms we can choose to blend in, camouflage, mimesis or aggressive mimicry; or we can choose to stand out and risk being accused of bad taste, Batesian, Müllerian or Mertensian mimicry.


Wickler, W. (1968) Mimicry in plants and animals
Translated from the German by R.D.Martin
World University Library: Weidenfield and Nicolson: London

About Graham Shawcross

Architect PhD student at Edinburgh University Interested in order, rhythm and pattern in Architectural Design
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