305: Deadly Animal Mimics

305: Deadly Animal Mimics

Brain Junk
Brain Junk
305: Deadly Animal Mimics

It’s easy to believe that a snake might be a deadly mimic. But butterflies that start life as carnivorous caterpillars? Oh heck yeah!

Show Notes:

YouTube BBC: Ants Adopt a Caterpillar

YouTube Entomological Society of America: Ants and Blues

The Pattern of Social Parasitism in Maculinea teleius Butterfly Is Driven by the Size and Spatial Distribution of the Host Ant Nests

Entomology Today: Carnivorous Caterpillars Fool Ants by Sounding like Queens

PLOS One: Variation in Butterfly Larval Acoustics as a Strategy to Infiltrate and Exploit Host Ant Colony Resources

Scientific American: Actual audio of the caterpillar mimicking an ant

Avian deception using an elaborate caudal lure in Pseudocerastes urarachnoides (Serpentes: Viperidae)

Herpetological.org Pseudocerastes urarachnoides: the ambush specialist (great pictures of the viper!)

Discover: Meet the Snake


00:00:03] Speaker A: Welcome to brain junk. I’m Amy Barton.

[00:00:05] Speaker B: And I’m Trace Kerr. And today is everything you never knew you wanted to know about deadly animal mimics.

[00:00:13] Speaker A: I want to know a lot about that.

[00:00:15] Speaker B: Well, I have two. It’s double header. I can’t make up my mind about subjects lately and I’m just going to mash it together.

[00:00:21] Speaker C: Bonus.

[00:00:24] Speaker B: So the first one, I’m going to give you a little scenario. You have a child pretending to be a queen, infiltrating a city, deceiving soldiers into taking care of her, all the while eating the real queen’s children.

[00:00:37] Speaker C: Oh, my word.

[00:00:38] Speaker A: That sounds like a marvel plot.

[00:00:40] Speaker C: It does, right?

[00:00:40] Speaker B: Horror movie, Sci-Fi it’s not. It’s the real life of the large blue butterfly caterpillar.

[00:00:47] Speaker A: I was sure we were going down an ant road.

[00:00:50] Speaker C: Well, wow.

[00:00:52] Speaker B: Kind of.

So, according to the plus one 2014 paper, this is the title. Variation in butterfly larval acoustics as a strategy to infiltrate and exploit host ant colony resources.

[00:01:10] Speaker C: Ooh, that’s quite the title.

[00:01:12] Speaker B: It’s so much title. There are about 10,000 different buggy critters out there faking their way into ant hills to snack on ants.

[00:01:19] Speaker C: That’s a lot.

[00:01:20] Speaker A: Poor ants. I know there’s a lot of them.

[00:01:23] Speaker C: But that’s not an excuse. There’s so many.

[00:01:27] Speaker B: We could eat a couple.

[00:01:28] Speaker C: It’ll be fine.

[00:01:33] Speaker A: Okay, you’re right. That’s true.

[00:01:34] Speaker D: Yeah.

[00:01:35] Speaker B: Of all of these butterflies in the matulina family, they’re super cute. They’re little blue butterflies. The one I’m going to talk about today in particular, mimics the calls of ant queens or lost grubs to trick their way into an ant dinner.

[00:01:52] Speaker C: Wow.

[00:01:52] Speaker B: Or would it be a caterpillar dinner? Caterpillars eating the ants.

[00:01:55] Speaker D: Caterpillar dinner.

[00:01:56] Speaker C: Probably a caterpillar dinner. Yeah.

[00:01:58] Speaker B: It’s not girl dinner, that’s for sure. It’s ants. It’s not a charcuterie board of fun. Little.

Yeah, I know. Just. Oh, it gets so much better. Just stay with me. So your large blue butterflies, they’re native all over eastern western Europe. They lay their eggs on host plants. It goes through four sheds called in stars. So when a caterpillar hatches its teeny tiny and then it eats until its skin doesn’t fit anymore, it sheds the skin like it’s taking off its sleeping bag of body. And then new one. Okay, so it does that four times, getting bigger. After that fourth shed, it gets a craving for something different.

[00:02:39] Speaker C: Ants protein.

[00:02:41] Speaker A: It’s big now it’s so good.

[00:02:43] Speaker B: It builds muscle. I’m on a cut. I’m getting bigger.

So the caterpillars, they start falling on the ground and calling out. They’re vocalizing a little song that sounds like a queen ant in distress.

[00:02:56] Speaker C: Oh, wild. Really? Yeah, those fakers.

[00:03:01] Speaker B: So you got these fleshy pink caterpillars with scraggly little hairs. They look gross.

[00:03:07] Speaker C: Okay.

[00:03:09] Speaker B: And they’re on the ground, and they’re making this vocalization, and frantic ant workers are running out. They pick up the caterpillar, and they take it back to the nest.

[00:03:18] Speaker A: Okay, so they’ve tricked it that far.

[00:03:21] Speaker B: Yes.

[00:03:21] Speaker C: The ants aren’t like, hey, you don’t look like we expected you. Well, I know.

[00:03:26] Speaker B: It’s like, it doesn’t look a thing like an ant.

[00:03:28] Speaker C: Not at all.

[00:03:29] Speaker B: But then, remember, ants will also, if they smell like a dead ant, they will pick a live ant up and throw it on the trash heap.

[00:03:35] Speaker C: That’s true.

[00:03:37] Speaker B: Maybe they’re not paying the best attention, but. So they take this caterpillar, which kind of looks like a grub, back to the ant hill, and some get tucked in with the grubs, and then they just get fed by the ants. And then also, they’re eating ants.

[00:03:50] Speaker C: Wow.

[00:03:52] Speaker B: Some they treat like a queen ant and feed the caterpillar, and then she’s also just, like, snacking on the other grubs around her while no one’s looking.

[00:04:02] Speaker C: Look over there. Oh, no.

[00:04:05] Speaker B: Munch, munch, munch.

[00:04:06] Speaker D: Yeah.

[00:04:09] Speaker B: And then over fall and winter, they eat enough ants that they get bigger, and then they make a cocoon. The cocoon is not bothered. It just lays there.

[00:04:19] Speaker C: Wow.

[00:04:19] Speaker A: Stays warm.

[00:04:20] Speaker D: Yes.

[00:04:20] Speaker B: And then in the spring, they hatch out and crawl out of the ant colony and go off to start the whole system again.

[00:04:26] Speaker C: Wow.

I can’t imagine when it starts to build its cocoon and the other ants.

[00:04:33] Speaker A: Are like, you know, guys, this might not actually be our queen.

[00:04:36] Speaker B: Well, and see, I actually went and found a video because I thought, okay, so it’s making noises and they’re feeding it, but a cocoon is not. It doesn’t seem to be alive. Why wouldn’t they pick that up and take it out? And it just lays there in the dirt off to the side.

[00:04:50] Speaker A: They’ve been desensitized to the smell or something. I don’t know. Somebody has to write a grant to.

[00:04:58] Speaker B: Find that out, why it doesn’t get taken away. And interestingly, we do have a blue butterfly in North America, the Miami blue. It’s native to Florida, and that caterpillar instead of getting taken back to the ant hill, it has this little. It almost looks like a butt antenna that sticks up, and it makes a sweet drink for the ants.

[00:05:21] Speaker C: Oh.

[00:05:22] Speaker B: And so you’ll see it pop up and the ants like, oh, yes, thank you. And kind of combs the stuff off and eats it. And so it’s so delicious. Carpenter ants will protect their walking snack machine caterpillars from other creatures.

[00:05:36] Speaker C: Wow, this is like the white van.

[00:05:39] Speaker A: With, would you like some candy? And they’re like, yes, we would.

[00:05:43] Speaker C: And we will defend you.

[00:05:44] Speaker B: Keep all the other children away from it.

[00:05:46] Speaker C: Yeah. Wow.

[00:05:48] Speaker A: Questionable judgment. Natural things. Come on, right?

[00:05:52] Speaker D: Yeah.

[00:05:53] Speaker B: So in that video, you see carpenter ants just running up on other bugs and just beating them up and ripping them off the plant. And the caterpillar is like, would you like a snack?

[00:06:01] Speaker D: How about now?

[00:06:02] Speaker C: Thank you. Yeah.

[00:06:04] Speaker B: So that’s our butterfly caterpillar. Mimic animal.

[00:06:09] Speaker C: I like that. That makes me feel better about the.

[00:06:11] Speaker A: Questionable decisions that we humans make from time to time. Like, the natural community is not immune to it.

[00:06:18] Speaker B: Well, this would be like a five year old in a playground sounding like you and your children, bringing the child home and treating it like you.

[00:06:27] Speaker C: Yeah, that’d be weird.

[00:06:29] Speaker B: Wallet ate.

[00:06:29] Speaker C: Chris, why did you bring that man in a bathrobe home?

No, that’s mom.

Oh, man.

[00:06:40] Speaker B: Well, okay, so going in a different direction, we’re going to talk about the iranian spider tailed viper.

[00:06:46] Speaker A: That sounds interesting.

[00:06:48] Speaker D: Yeah.

[00:06:48] Speaker B: So I sent you a YouTube video.

[00:06:51] Speaker C: Okay.

[00:06:51] Speaker B: Now you can watch it.

[00:06:53] Speaker C: Okay.

[00:06:53] Speaker A: It’s going to happen.

[00:06:54] Speaker B: And I want you to tell people what you see, because it is horrific. This will also be in the show notes. Don’t worry, you can play along with the show.

[00:07:02] Speaker A: Okay. I’m seeing a little spider cruising around.

[00:07:05] Speaker C: Oh.

[00:07:06] Speaker A: On a spiky tailed thing. And suddenly it’s turned.

[00:07:09] Speaker C: No.

[00:07:10] Speaker A: So tail wagging makes it resemble a moving spider.

[00:07:13] Speaker C: Yikes.

That’s unexpected.

[00:07:18] Speaker A: Suddenly there’s a bird, and I wasn’t seeing at all what I thought I was.

[00:07:24] Speaker D: Yeah.

[00:07:24] Speaker B: You don’t see that snake at all.

[00:07:25] Speaker C: Oh, my gosh. No.

[00:07:27] Speaker A: Because it’s in rocks. And so you just see rocks and this little spider crawling around an outcropping that’s a little spiky. And it totally looks like a spider. And the motion it does is weird. And so then this bird is like, ooh, spider. I’m having that. And it is not having that. The snake is having the bird. So heads up. That’s what happens at the end of this.

[00:07:50] Speaker C: Oh, my gosh.

[00:07:52] Speaker D: Yeah.

[00:07:53] Speaker B: So that spider looking thing is called a caudal C-A-U-D-A-L lure. That’s fancy science talk for when a tale evolves into a horror show.

[00:08:02] Speaker C: Yes. Wow.

[00:08:04] Speaker B: This viper, this snake, his butt looks like a spider. And not just a tiny bit, not a little.

[00:08:10] Speaker A: I was quite sure that the snake was going to pop out and eat the spider, and that is not what went down at all.

[00:08:17] Speaker C: Even though you told me the name.

[00:08:19] Speaker A: Of this snake, my eyes told me another thing.

[00:08:22] Speaker D: Yeah.

[00:08:22] Speaker B: Because it’s kind of gray granite looking rock. This snake is kind of short and fat with one of those big diamondy heads, and you cannot see it at all. And then the spider on the, well, the tail, the spider is kind of a brown color.

[00:08:40] Speaker A: It’s enough different.

[00:08:41] Speaker C: That’s wild.

[00:08:44] Speaker A: And the motion, the motion very much fooled my brain.

[00:08:47] Speaker D: Yeah.

[00:08:47] Speaker B: What I don’t like about spiders is the movement. I have trouble. I’ve watched so many videos of this snake tail squinting my eyes. It’s like if I squint, it’s not going to be as scary. I don’t know. It’s dumb, but it works for me. So there is an actual desert spider, and it has a really long, distended body. It’s almost scorpion like. And this snake tail.

[00:09:07] Speaker D: Okay.

[00:09:07] Speaker B: There’s slight variations from snake to snake in the bits that look like legs and the swollen abdomen of a spider. But it’s remarkable, even down to the color, how similar this lure is on its tail. And the tail wiggle thing to attract the prey isn’t unusual. There are a lot of different animals, snakes and other critters that will wiggle their tail, but it’s usually a wiggle like a worm. This is a swirling, trailing motion.

[00:09:34] Speaker C: Yeah.

[00:09:34] Speaker B: It actually looks like a spider on the rock. It’s terrible.

[00:09:38] Speaker C: It’s horrible.

[00:09:39] Speaker B: Hate it. And this snake is a fairly recent find, at least by.

[00:09:45] Speaker C: Because they blended in so well. I know, right?

[00:09:48] Speaker B: The first one was found, quote unquote, in the 1970s.

[00:09:51] Speaker A: Oh, wow.

[00:09:52] Speaker B: And, yeah, in 2006, it was dubbed its own species, pseudosorastes uraknoids, fake horned with spider like tail.

[00:10:05] Speaker C: It’s a very direct name.

[00:10:07] Speaker D: Sums it up.

[00:10:07] Speaker C: Yeah.

[00:10:08] Speaker B: In 2008, scientists. Okay, so this was the great. So one they had found several years back. When they opened it up, it had a bird in its stomach, and they thought, well, okay, yeah, we see the spider tail. But was that a one off? Yeah.

[00:10:23] Speaker C: Was that bird limping?

[00:10:24] Speaker B: Yeah. Was it a coincidence they captured a few snakes because they wanted to know if that had been a fluke? They put the captured snakes in enclosures.

[00:10:34] Speaker C: With birds, and they watched their population drop.

[00:10:38] Speaker B: Right, exactly. Spider tail goes into action. Several birds became instant meals trying to attack the spider.

[00:10:45] Speaker A: And then the snake is like, thank you. I viewed this as aversive initially, but this is amazing. Thank you.

[00:10:51] Speaker B: I didn’t like the bag that you shoved me into, but this is delicious.

[00:10:55] Speaker C: Yeah, I like the yellow ones. Can we get more yellow ones?

[00:10:59] Speaker D: Yeah.

[00:11:00] Speaker B: So there’s not much more to say about the spider butt snake. It’s creepy. Definitely. Go take a look at the video. It’s remarkable how they do not show up at all. Yeah, it’s weird nature. Get it off me.

[00:11:14] Speaker C: Yes.

[00:11:15] Speaker A: That’s our next t shirt.

[00:11:19] Speaker C: Speaking of t shirts, at the merch.

[00:11:21] Speaker A: Store, you can get a brain junk t shirt, and you can get a non newtonian fluid glass. It can hold other types of fluids.

[00:11:30] Speaker B: But I was like, wait, it’s a glass? That’s a liquid?

[00:11:33] Speaker D: That’s a glass.

[00:11:34] Speaker B: Well, that’s a mindbender.

[00:11:36] Speaker A: You could fill it with non newtonian fluids, but they don’t flow well, so at least not like, Oreo filling doesn’t flow in that form. All right, we’re, of course, on social media. Brain Junk podcast. Hey, we’re on YouTube. What’s our handle on YouTube, Trace?

[00:11:52] Speaker B: It’s Brain junk podcast.

[00:11:53] Speaker C: I’m shocked. I know, right?

[00:11:57] Speaker A: But YouTube.com. Go find brain junk. Brain Junk podcast. We’re there.

All right, Trace and I will catch you next time when we share more of everything you never knew you wanted to know, and I guarantee you will not be bored.

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