Animals have developed a lot of ways to disguise themselves and hide from predators, but few have taken it as far as the cinereous mourner chick. Although the chick’s parents are a dull black color, the chicks are covered in bright orange feathers. This makes the chick easy to spot, but what do the predators see?
Scientists have wondered why the cinerous mouner chicks were so brightly colored, instead of some other color that would blend in with the jungle. Now, they think they have figured it out. Instead of trying to hide and not be seen, the chicks have evolved to look like a poisonous caterpillar that lives in the same area of southeastern Peru. This lets the chicks hide in plain sight!
The scientists learned about the chicks’ mimicking abilities during a study in Peru in 2012. They had discovered a cinereous mourner nest (the second one ever described) and were making measurements of it. While the scientists studied the nest, the scared chicks began moving their heads back and forth like a caterpillar. The scientists were curious, and they began searching the area near the nest. When they did, they found a poisonous caterpillar that looked, and moved, like the chicks.
The caterpillar (which does not have a name yet) is pretty big for a caterpillar, almost five inches long, and it is about the same size as the mourner chicks. The hairs of the caterpillar are coated in a toxin that irritates the skin, and the predators in the area have learned to stay away from it. Since the predators won’t eat the caterpillar, they won’t eat anything that looks like it, either!
The chicks’ ability to mimic the caterpillar is called Batesian mimicry—when a harmless animal tries to look like a more dangerous one to protect itself. This kind of mimicry is common in the insect world, but this is the first time it’s been seen in a bird! It makes us wonder other curious new things are hiding right under our noses!
To see the chicks in action, click here!