Wednesday, 27 March 2013


Scarlet King Snake, Batesian, Aposematism
The Scarlet King Snake as photographed by Glenn Bartolotti.
Despite its tough-sounding name and bold colours, it's actually a complete wimp.


Adjective. L19.

Zoology. Designating or characterized by a form of mimicry in which an edible
 species is protected by its resemblance to one avoided by predators. 

Many animals have drawn the short straw in the circle of life. Not only are they a preyed-upon species, but they're a preyed-upon species that is frustratingly accommodating to the predator; they don't sting or bite, they're not poisonous, and they're probably delicious.

This would be particularly irksome to them (if you'll excuse the flagrant anthropomorphism) when there are any number of similar species living in their area that have been blessed by Mother Nature with the ability to fight back and generally be as inconvenient as possible to any predator that makes a move on them. Not only that, but such well-armed species are generally keen to advertise the fact through aposematism, literally strutting their inedible stuff about the place. So what do you do as an obligingly delectable member of the animal world? Batesian mimicry.

To give an example, a coral snake is not a snake you should mess with as it's nerve-meltingly venomous. Being the shy and retiring type, it doesn't even want you to mess with it. It therefore advertises the fact with distinctive aposematic markings that predators learn to avoid. This is of benefit to all: the coral snake is left in peace, and any would-be predators can avoid the pleasure of sampling its neurotoxins. This is what biologists call honest signalling on the part of the coral snake. Its markings say: "Back off! I'm packing serious heat here!" and that is exactly the case.

The scarlet king snake, however, is not packing heat, being completely non-venomous. Instead, its markings mimic those of the coral snake, the advantage being that any predator that has learned to avoid the coral snake should be sufficiently duped to avoid the scarlet king snake as well. This is Batesian mimicry, an example of what biologists call dishonest signalling, and it benefits no one except the mimic as the predator mistakenly passes over an easy meal.

Interestingly, Batesian mimicry can actually be detrimental to the copied, or model, species. If a predator has encountered several scarlet king snakes and found them to be thoroughly delicious and hospitable in their inability to paralyse its respiratory system, it's likely to think the same again when it happens upon a coral snake. Thanks to the duplicity of the scarlet king snake, everyone in that scenario is in for an unpleasant surprise.

Coral Snake, venomous, dangerous, aposematism
The Coral Snake as photographed by Norman Benton
If you ever find one in your trousers, don't put your trousers on


  1. This post was filled with so many difficult words, ugh >< Think I got the gist of it though: don't eat snakes, especially not if they have pretty colours. Though some of them you can eat, but no-one wants to be the first to try.

    RYC: Yep, that's exactly what they did. A bunch of men in a confined space, months and months with no land in sight, boredom strikes at day four... reading dictionaries. Who wouldn't?!

    1. You know, Bibi, I did think as I was writing this article that it's quite 'idiom heavy', which obviously makes it trickier for non-native speakers. Sorry about that : o /

    2. Hey Ed, you don't have to hold back because of me or any of the other non-native English speakers on here. Why do you think we read these posts? It's to learn, right? Also for entertainment, yes, but mostly to learn.

  2. Most interesting. Is it called 'Batesian mimicry' when a man gets tattooed and pierced all over in order to send the signal 'don't mess with me', when often hes a 'wanna-be' and a wimp?'

    1. @ross: Naw, that's just being stupid. Don't do life-altering things if you're not committed.

    2. I did wonder how humans display Batesian mimicry. The closest I came to was a nerd who's watched a tonne of Bruce Lee films. When challenged in a pub, he strikes the classic Bruce Lee kung-fu pose - a very risky strategy indeed! I think grovelling for your life would be a safer option at that point : o )

  3. Sometimes I wear jackets with beige, corduroy elbow pads to worry chess opponents.

    - clueless

    1. No, no, no Clueless! You just don't get it! If you're trying to worry a chess *opponent*, the battle has already begun. The whole point of Batesian mimicry is to avoid being preyed upon in the first place! Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

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