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New Zealand insect mimics poisonous species to avoid being eaten

Researchers from the University of Otago Department of have made an intriguing discovery about a New Zealand insect's unique ‘cheating' strategy to evade predators. The cyanide-producing stonefly, Austroperla cyrene, employs bold “warning” colors of black, white, and yellow to signal its toxicity to potential threats, similar to poisonous species like wasps and bees.

However, an unrelated, non-toxic species, Zelandoperla fenestrata, has cunningly developed a mimicry tactic by closely resembling the appearance of the poisonous stonefly. By doing so, it hopes to avoid being targeted by predators. The mimicry is so convincing that even birds, the predators in question, struggle to differentiate between the poisonous and non-poisonous species, leading them to avoid both.

The researchers used genomic techniques to identify a crucial in a coloration gene, distinguishing between the ‘cheats' (the mimics) and the non-cheats (genuine poisonous stoneflies). This fascinating study sheds light on the intriguing world of survival strategies in the insect kingdom.

A cyanide-producing Austroperla cyrene sits at the top of this picture, with a mimicking Zelandoperla fenestrata in the center and non-mimicking Zelandoperla fenestrata at the bottom. Credit: University of Otago

The presence of allows the cheating species to adapt their tactics based on different regions. Nevertheless, Dr. Graham McCulloch, a co-author of the study, points out that this strategy, known as Batesian mimicry, doesn't always guarantee success. In regions where the poisonous species is scarce, the cheating strategy becomes less effective.

Professor Jon Waters, another co-author, warns that cheating can be risky. If the number of cheats exceeds that of the poisonous species, predators will catch on quickly, disrupting the delicate balance of the mimicry game.

The research team is currently investigating how environmental changes are influencing rapid evolutionary changes in native species in New Zealand. The study sheds light on the complexities of survival strategies and the impact of environmental shifts on species' .

Source: University of Otago

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