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Home arrow Geography arrow Mimicry and Meaning: Structure and Semiotics of Biological Mimicry

Mimic’s Activity and Intentionality

Distinguishing the three participants in mimicry and their relationships brings along the possibility to analyse mimicry from different perspectives. The position of the mimic and its connection to the model is especially interesting for semiotics, as it relates to the question of deliberate deception and hence intentional semiosis in the animal world. In his essay “Can animals lie?” Thomas A. Sebeok focuses on the position of the mimic and describes various organisms that carry deceptive characteristics (Sebeok 1990a: 95-96). In his analysis, Sebeok seems to emphasise the position of the sender rather than that of the receiver. This is in compliance with Sebeok’s later theoretical stance: to describe different types of signs in connection with various modelling strategies, i.e., from the position of the utterer and sign creation rather than that of the receiver and sign perception. For example, in the book “The forms of meaning. Modeling systems theory and semiotic analysis”, which seems to be one of the most unified syntheses of Sebeok’s views (written together with Marcel Danesi), iconic signs are defined on the basis of the features of sign creation:

A sign is said to be iconic when the modelling process employed in its creation involves some form of simulation. Iconic modelling produces singularized forms that display a perceptible resemblance between the signifier and its signified. In other words, an icon is a sign that is made to resemble its referents in some way. (Sebeok and Danesi 2000: 24)

In “Signs: An introduction to semiotics”, Sebeok emphasises the relation between the iconic sign and the concept of ‘mimesis’ (imitation) from the Platonic- Aristotelian discourse (Sebeok 1994: 28; see also Sebeok 1989: 110). From the position of the mimic, the process of changing or altering itself (or the surrounding environment) in order to resemble the model can be considered as a creation of iconic resemblance. The connection between mimicry and iconicity is further illustrated by Sebeok’s description of the behaviour of the spider who changes “its surroundings to fit its own image by fabricating a number of dummy copies of itself to misdirect predators away from its body, the live model, to one of several replicas it constructs for that very purpose” (Sebeok 1989: 116). Orb-weaving spider, Cyclosa mulmeinensis, common in Asia, indeed uses remains of its prey and egg sacs to construe objects that, when wrapped into spider silk on the web, resemble the real spider both in size and colouration (Tseng and Tso 2009). As it was observed by Tan and Li (2009), the decoys help to camouflage the spider and lower the predation rate by hymenopteras and insectivorous birds. In Sebeok’s semiotic treatment, the mimic’s active involvement in creating the deceptive resemblance appears to become a criterion of mimicry.

From a biological point of view, emphasising the mimic’s activity as a representational feature of mimicry is more questionable, as there are also many mimicry cases in nature where the mimic holds quite a modest position. In terms of the mimic’s behavioural activity, the example of self-copying spiders mentioned above is an exceptional situation. To systematise different deceptive behaviours in nature, animal psychologist Robert W. Mitchell has distinguished four levels of deception according to the sender’s freedom to act. On the first level, the sender deceives because it has been designed to do so and cannot do otherwise. On the second level, deception is largely predetermined, but for its expression, the sender needs to come into contact with the receiver and trigger the deceptive demonstration actively. On the third level, the sender is capable of customising the preexisting behavioural patterns and repeating the successful deceptions based on experience and learning. On the fourth level of deception, which is characteristic of humans and to some extent also of other anthropoids, the sender takes into consideration the past activities of the receiver and can customise deception depending on the receiver’s response in a particular communicative situation. (Mitchell 1986: 21-27).

Many observations have been made of deception in higher mammals such as elephants, chimpanzees or polar foxes, and such cases of deception could even be considered intentional in the sense that they are behavioural novelties, used by specific individuals to settle particular social contentions (Morris 1986; Ruppel 1986; Waal 1986). At the same time, these occurrences, which belong to level three or even four in Mitchell’s classification, are usually not considered examples of biological mimicry. Many classic examples of mimicry rather belong to level two in Mitchell’s classification, as they are characterised by genetic determination and some behavioural activity. However, there also exists a multitude of examples of mimicry that belong entirely to the first category of Mitchell’s classification, because the mimic as an individual does not express any communicative activity to become similar to its model.

The involvement of an individual’s behavioural activity in mimicry varies from the absolute minimum in fixed bodily displays to fully dynamic deception. For example, the mimic’s activity is minimal in the expression of most camouflage patterns. The same is also true of many examples of mimicry in plants that resemble either physical objects of the environment, other plants or even animals. Delbert Wiens gives an example of the passiflorous host plants (passion flowers) of the Heliconius butterflies, which have developed modified stipules resembling egg masses of butterflies. As Heliconius butterflies choose vacant plants for laying their eggs to avoid later cannibalism between caterpillars, the plants with false eggs are thus left undamaged by feeding caterpillars (Wiens 1978: 376; Benson et al. 1975: 670-671).

In other cases, the mimic’s behavioural activity plays an essential role in bringing the deceptive display into existence. As an example of this, Mark D. Norman and his colleagues describe the mimic octopus Thaumoctopus mimicus. This species was discovered only in 1998 and has become a celebrity of animal behaviour research. The mimic octopus uses its flexible body to imitate movements and different body shapes of predators and venomous animals of its marine environment, such as flatfishes, lionfishes and sea snakes (Norman et al. 2001). Images of different animals are performed mostly by using different positions of arms, e.g. for imitating sea snake posture, “six arms were threaded down a hole and two were raised in opposite directions, banded, curled and undulated” (Norman et al. 2001: 1755). The imitation of the body shape is strengthened by simulation of the movement, for instance, swimming with the pace and rhythm of a particular fish species. Dynamic mimicry has later been described in other octopus species as well (Krajewski et al. 2009; Hanlon et al. 2010). What is remarkable in this case is that resemblance is created purely through behavioural activities in changing body shape and colouration, as the body of the octopus is flexible and lacks any skeletal structure. In the mimicry display of the Thaumoctopus mimicus, the intentional involvement of the octopus appears indeed to be very high (corresponding to at least level three on Mitchell’s scale), as the octopus appears to be able to select the appropriate imitation according to the perceived threat and surrounding environment. Norman and colleagues write:

Dynamic mimicry has the unique advantage that it can be employed facultatively, with the octopus adopting a form best suited to the perceived threat at any given time. Evidence for such sophisticated behaviour comes from our observation that on all occasions when sea- snake mimicry was observed it was exclusively a reaction to an attack by territorial damselfishes. Sea-snakes forage by entering burrows, and are predators of damselfishes (Norman et al. 2001: 1757-1758).

However, when trying to use individual activity as a general criterion of mimicry, we encounter difficulties in describing the resemblance in camouflage or floral mimicry in terms of iconic sign creation. If the mimic as an individual is similar to the model just by way of genetic determination and does not participate in the creation of resemblance in any active manner, could this similarity be excluded from mimicry and from iconic sign activities? Should it not rather be categorised under natural similarities like, for example, resemblance between thorns and outgrowths of plants and furs of mammals, which do not have any communicative reason but are rather adaptations against forces of physical nature? The similarity of the stipules of Passiflora with Heliconius’ eggs is, however, related to the ecological linkage of those species as well as to communicative contact between them.

As a possible way out of this problem, which has also been described in connection with other topics in phytosemiotics, Winfried Noth has suggested that plant- animal coevolution could with certain reservations be considered as semiosis of the evolutionary level, where the message is “taken from a large repertoire of morphological structures (colours, forms, etc.)” (Noth 1990: 167). Jesper Hoffmeyer seems to support this view, arguing that similarities in mimicry may be both nondeceptive on the level of the individual (because the mimic can not send a truthful message) and deceptive on the evolutionary level. Using the resemblance between the Malayan praying mantis Hymenopus bicornis and the pink flowers of Melastoma polyanthum as an example, Hoffmeyer explains:

I suggest that we include among lies a special category to be termed evolutionary lies, i.e., lies rooted in the kind of intentionality exhibited by lineages in the process of evolving strategies for deceiving individuals from other species. [...] the single mantis doesn’t lie, but it is nevertheless an integral part of the lying lineage to which it belongs. Seen in the historical setting in which the adaptation took place the “resemblance” between mantis and flower was meant to be a (false) “representation” i.e., it was a lie. (Hoffmeyer 1995)

We can conclude that whether or not mimicry is a phenomenon of iconic sign creation depends first on the particular examples of resemblance we observe in the natural world, and second, on our understanding of the mimic as an active party in communication. Instances where the mimic as an individual plays an important role in bringing deceptive resemblance into existence could be understood as examples of iconicity on the level of the organism and its neural activity. Other cases of mimicry could be seen as iconic, presuming that the interpretative and communicative activity is attributed to the species as a whole on the evolutionary level. We can consider mimicry to be a phylogenetic deception that does not need to include the specific cognitive activity of the sender. Here we encounter discussions of final causation or evolutionary intentionality, a topic much discussed in contemporary biosemiotics.

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