Different Perspectives in Mimicry System

In the first half of this book, I have described the structure of mimicry, its diversity and typologies, given an overview of the semiotics of mimicry and analysed the relationship between mimicry and iconicity. In other words, I have analysed mimicry basically as a static structure or system with a shifting focus on its different aspects. In the present chapter, I will change the perspective and predominantly analyse dynamic issues: how mimicry as a structure operates as approached from the positions of the mimic, the model and the receiver, how they act to fit into the mimicry system, and what the different strategies are that they can use to cope with the other participants in mimicry.

When analysing theoretical literature on mimicry, we can see that many works emphasise either one participant of the mimicry system or the relationship between two participants and describe mimicry from this particular viewpoint. Logically it is possible to distinguish between three basic relationships in mimicry:

  • 1. communicative relationship between the model and the receiver;
  • 2. resemblance-based relationship between the model and the mimic;
  • 3. deception-based relationship between the mimic and the receiver.

Depending on which relationship is preferred, specific properties of the mimicry system will be foregrounded. Thus, the relationship between the model and the receiver relates to common forms and models of animal communication. Mimicry is often explicitly related to the properties of the model that provide protection or other benefits to the mimic. An eminent mimicry scholar Hugh B. Cott has noted: “The theory that the mimicking species are benefited by a superficially deceptive resemblance to a model which is either dangerous or distasteful to their natural enemies, or to one which is not feared or avoided by their prey, rests ultimately upon the validity of the theory of warning coloration—since the animals resembled are themselves typically aposematic.” (Cott 1957: 396). From the position of the communicative encounter between the model and the receiver, the mimic can be seen as an eavesdropper or as a communicative parasite. The mimic disturbs the normal © Springer International Publishing AG 2017

T. Maran, Mimicry and Meaning: Structure and Semiotics of Biological Mimicry, Biosemiotics 16, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-50317-2_7

flow of communication between the model and receiver (cf. Endler 1993; Kopp and Mills 2002).

The perspective that focuses on the model-mimic relation highlights the issue of their similarity or difference. Such an approach to mimicry reaches back to the beginnings of mimicry studies. The external similarity was a focal point in the explanations of natural theology (Blaisdell 1982) as well as in early Darwinian mimicry accounts (Bates 1862). In 1862, Henry Walter Bates specified mimicry to be “resemblances in external appearance, shape, and colours between members of widely distinct families [...] The resemblance is so close, that it is only after long practice that the true can be distinguished from the counterfeit, when on the wing in their native forests” (Bates 1862: 502, 504). In present-day field research, the relationship between the mimic and the model is focused on in treatments that study spatial and temporal dynamics of mimic and model populations. The relationships between mimic and model populations can be analysed by mathematical modelling (e.g. Waldbauer 1988; Huheey 1964; Franks and Noble 2004) and by different ecological studies emphasising spatial arrangement of species. The correlated change of the appearance of mimics and models has been described under the concept of mimicry rings that denotes local morphs that include individuals from many different species (Mallet and Gilbert 1995; Mallet and Joron 1999). Especially in tropical rain forests, butterflies form mimicry rings that either inhabit neighbouring microhabitats or even different horizontal vegetation layers.

The third possible approach in the study of mimicry focuses on the relationship between the mimic and the receiver, and often pays attention to strategies and adaptations that mimics use to mislead receivers. This approach fits well with behavioural ecology and other Neo-Darwinian paradigms that stress the deceptive component as not just characteristic of mimicry, but of all communicative relations (e.g. in intraspecies courtship rituals, communication between adults and offspring, etc., Maynard Smith and Harper 2003: 3-4). Focusing on the relationship between the mimic and the receiver could also be a reasonable choice in cases where the mimic’s imitating properties are too abstract for constructing the specific similarity relation with the model (e.g. in abstract mimicry). The deceptive aspect can be in the foreground in behavioural studies as well, as for instance in the experiments of classical ethology on learning capacities of the receiver when faced with a mimetic organism. Studies by Jane Van Zandt Brower and Lincoln Pierson Brower paved the way for the understanding of resemblance between mimics and models as a behavioural dilemma for the signal receiver (Brower 1960; Brower and Brower 1962).

The three perspectives that are distinguished above are definitely not mutually exclusive. In-depth reviews and monographs often deal with all three relationships of the mimicry system. Still, distinguishing between communication, resemblance and deception as three central focuses could be proposed as a useful heuristic device for organising different understandings of mimicry.

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