Ant Mimicry: Insects that Pretend to be Ants

Ant mimicry: insects that pretend to be ants

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It is estimated that there are around 15,700 species of ants but outside of this, there are also many insects that actually pretend to be ants!

But what is this phenomenon, and why does it happen? Let’s discover.

What is Myrmecomorphy?

What is myrmecomorphy?
Toxeus Magnus, a Jumping Spider Species, Mimics the Appearance of Ants

When we see insects mimicking ants, it is a phenomenon known as myrmecomorphy, and this can involve other creatures taking on the appearance or behavior of an ant. They typically do this to survive since many of the insects that do this are harmless and not able to effectively defend or protect themselves. This is known as Batesian mimicry. 

However, there are some species that display aggressive mimicry in which they take on the traits of an ant to intercept ant colonies for food.

If that wasn’t enough, there is a phenomenon known as Mullerian mimicry whereby several species of harmful insects take on the traits of each other in order to deter predators.

There are several different species of insects and arthropods that display myrmecomorphy, including the mantis which takes on both the appearance and behavior of certain ant species. Some spiders, moths, and flies are also known to take on these traits as well as beetles in which it is thought that this behavior has evolved around 12 times. Moreover, scientists in China have discovered examples of myrmecomorphy that are thought to be around 50 million years old.

Why Do Insects Mimic Ants?

Why insects mimic ants?
Ant-Mimicking Treehoppers Mimic Ants for Protection & Prey Evasion

Mimicking another species certainly has its advantages, and there are several reasons why insects might engage in myrmecomorphy.

For Survival & Protection

The most basic aim for any creature is to survive and for those that engage in myrmecomorphy, they really take their survival skills to the next level.

There are lots of predatory animals out there that don’t like to feed on ants because they know that they may bite or sting.

For harmless animals, there’s much less chance of becoming a meal if they make themselves look like a stinging ant that a predator would like to avoid. This is known as Batesian mimicry, which I mentioned in the previous section.

And some creatures take it even further by not only mimicking ants but surrounding themselves with them for added protection. Take the ant-mimicking caterpillar, for example, which hides out among weaver ants gaining protection from potential predators. 

To Access Resources & Predation

Getting access to the best resources in nature isn’t always easy, but some insects have a cunning advantage; mimicry.

For example, there are some species of spider that will take on the appearance and stance of an ant to gain access to prey. But what’s sneaky is that they’re often looking to prey on the ants within the very colony they’re trying to fit into.

In some cases, especially where Batesian mimicry is concerned, these insects may use their disguise to get into ant nests and take advantage of resources like shelter.

Mimicry Mechanisms

Ant mimicry mechanisms
Ant Mimic Cricket Nymph

You only have to take a quick look at nature to see how wonderfully diverse it is. And that’s certainly the case where mimicry is concerned. Each insect that engages in myrmecomorphy has its own unique way of imitating ants.

Morphological Adaptations

Animals all over the world rely on morphological adaptations to help them survive. These adaptations help them to live in their environments and give them the best chance of survival.

Where mimicking insects are concerned, it’s interesting that these adaptations may be displayed at different stages of their lives. For example, some insects display ant mimicry in their larval stages while this trait is shown in adult stages in other cases. Plus, they’re super convincing.

Quite often, adaptations such as body shape can be seen with some species having a narrower waist (often seen in spiders.) However, they do face a problem when it comes to finding a mate if they are seen as an ant. Amazingly, their adaptations mean that, from above, they appear to have a segmented body like an ant which deters aerial predators. But from the side, they still have that spider-like appearance that helps them to attract a partner.

As well as body shape, many insects have adaptations to their coloration, often being brown, black, or red to appear more like the ants they’re trying to imitate.

There are also some species of spiders that will lift their front legs above their head to make them appear like antennae. Although this is something they can control, it’s still interesting that they’ve adapted to be able to do this in the first place.

Behavioral Adaptations

Another way that some insects convince creatures around them that they are, in fact, an ant is through their behavior. In fact, this is very common and crucial to their survival as merely looking like an ant may not be enough.

This is often seen in the way that these insects move, taking on an ant-like gait, zig-zagging through their environment. Often, this is a successful way to deter predators and even convince real ants that they’re part of their colony.

They may also develop similar communication to ants as another way of blending into the colony and not drawing attention to themselves. If the members of the colony were to cotton on to what was happening, there’d be a high chance of aggression that these mimics could do with avoiding.

You may have heard of brood parasitism where certain creatures will lay their eggs in the nest of another. This is a common survival tactic that is seen in birds, but it also happens in the insect kingdom. When ant mimics lay their eggs in an ant nest, the ants are fooled into thinking the eggs (and resulting young) are one of their own and will nurture and care for them.

Chemical Deception

In the animal kingdom, pheromones are heavily relied upon for communication, especially when it comes to things like reproduction and protection.

There is a type of mimicry known as Wasmannian mimicry which involves emitting ant-like pheromones, causing the individual to actually smell like an ant. This phenomenon was discovered and named after an entomologist called J.K Wasmann and is thought to be used as a way for non-ant species to get into an ant colony.

Pheromones are a type of chemical that are naturally emitted by the body, often from specific glands. By emitting chemicals that are familiar to ants, it makes it much easier for an individual to gain access whether this is for shelter, resources, or to predate the ants.

It’s very difficult for the ants to tell the difference between a mimicked scent and one produced by their own relatives. Individual colonies often have their own unique scent and there are insects that go as far as replicating this as opposed to general ant pheromones.

What’s more, since ants often emit pheromones as a way of deterring predators, these mimics are also able to avoid predation simply by smelling like an ant.

Insect Species That Imitate Ants

It may surprise you to learn that there are around 2,000 species of insects that are known to engage in myrmecomorphy. Although it would be impossible for me to discuss every one of these thousands of species, I’d like to cover some of those that are most interesting.

1. Ant-Mimicking Jumping Spider (Myrmarachne spp.)

The ant-mimicking jumping spider employs aggressive mimicry, resembling and behaving like an ant to deceive both predators and prey.

The ant-mimicking jumping spider imitates ants as a form of aggressive mimicry in which it attempts to deceive both predator and prey by looking and acting like an ant. Right from birth, these spiders have an ant-like appearance and this continues throughout all of their life stages.

Their coloration and body shape are similar to that of an ant, but they also use jerky and erratic movements that make them all the more convincing. I mentioned earlier that some spiders will use their front legs to resemble antennae and that’s certainly the case with the jumping spider.

But their mimicry isn’t limited to behavioral and morphological traits; these spiders are also able to produce pheromones to deceive ants and potential predators. When you consider that they are required to produce very specific chemicals, it makes their deception even more impressive. Even more astounding is that these jumping spiders may imitate different ants depending on their habitat and what species are present even though these spiders are found all over the world.

Since the jumping spider often preys on the eggs of species that are deterred by ants, their imitation comes in handy when hunting. They will also use their mimicry abilities to infiltrate ant colonies on which they may also prey. But it’s not all good news when it comes to hunting. Because these spiders are designed to jump when attacking their prey, their ant-like bodies may make this more difficult.

2. Rove Beetles (Staphylinidae Family)

Rove beetles utilize Batesian mimicry to protect themselves from predators by adopting the appearance of ants.

Rove beetles use Batesian mimicry as a way of protecting themselves from predators as they take on the appearance of ants which allows them to gain access to their nests where they are protected.

This mimicry doesn’t typically begin until the beetle reaches its adult stage but by this point, everything from their shape to coloration and even the way that they move has altered to resemble an ant. For example, unlike typical beetles, the rove beetle has a narrower abdomen which is far more similar to that of an ant.

Just like jumping spiders, they may be seen to make gestures with their legs that cause them to appear as though they have ant-like antennae. Different rove beetles may mimic different ant species depending on their habitat, which may include everything from forests to urban areas, and what species are found alongside them. Moreover, it’s worth keeping in mind that there are around 66,000 species of rove beetles and each one has its own level of deceptive ability depending on its evolution and adaptations.

On top of this, there are some cases of rove beetles using chemical deception, although this is far rarer than other ant-mimicking species. When it does happen, it is usually the imitation of alarm pheromones that afford them protection from predators.

While many rove beetles mimic ants for protection, there are some species that invade the nest to prey on the brood, showing that not all rove beetles use Batesian mimicry

3. Asian Ant Mantis (Odontomantis planiceps)

The Asian ant mantis bears a striking resemblance to an ant, evident in its coloration and uniquely adapted front legs, further enhancing its ant-like appearance.

If you were to see the Asian ant mantis in its nymph stages, you might be convinced that it was some sort of ant. However, as these insects get older, they tend to lose their ant-like traits.

Where these traits are present, you’ll notice that the appearance of the Asian ant mantis is strikingly similar to that of an ant, both in terms of coloration and even adapted front legs that make it look like an ant.

This is a form of aggressive mimicry that the Asian ant mantis uses for survival and to avoid predation. But rather than just imitating one species of ant, it has more general features.

Found in Southeast Asia, typically in forests, the Asian ant mantis is almost always found in areas where there is an abundance of ants. You could be easily fooled seeing them making erratic movements around the forest floor and even after they’ve lost their ant-like features, their tiny size allows them to remain convincing.

4. Ant-Mimicking Ground Spider (Micaria spp.)

We’ve talked about the ant-mimicking jumping spider, but that isn’t the only arachnid species that practice mimicry. The ant-mimicking ground spider also uses aggressive mimicry as a way of preventing itself from becoming a meal. It’ll also use these same tactics to hunt and confuse prey, although they’re also known for their patience and will lie in wait, ready to ambush prey as it passes by.

These spiders are not known to use chemical mimicry but are very convincing in terms of their appearance having coloration and body shapes that are similar to ants. What’s more, they are known to mimic the gait and movement of ants to further enhance their deception.

Ant-mimicking ground spiders are found among leaf litter and vegetation all over the world. Because of this, they typically have a more general form of mimicry as opposed to imitating a specific ant species.

5. Treehopper (Cyphonia clavata)

The ant-mimicking treehopper sports extended head structures resembling antennae, contributing to its ant-like appearance.

There are over 3000 species of treehopper and some of these are known to engage in mimicry as a way of getting protection from ant colonies and avoid becoming prey. This normally happens during their younger life stages, with adults losing many of their ant-like traits.

The ant-mimicking treehopper has long structures on the head, which give it an ant-like appearance, resembling antennae. In addition, this species has adapted certain ways of moving that are very similar to how an ant moves. 

This, coupled with its appearance from above means that any aerial predators will assume it is an ant and pass it by. But the treehopper is also able to mimic many species of ants with its generalized mimicry, meaning that it is safe in various forest environments throughout Central and South America where it is found. They’re important players within their ecosystems, feeding on plant sap, which is beneficial to the health of the local flora.

While treehoppers may use mimicry for their own benefit, there are reports of mutualistic relationships with ants that benefit both parties. In these cases, they may exchange protection from the colony for nutrition since they’re able to secrete a sugary substance from their bodies that the ants can feed on.

6. Large Blue Butterfly (Phengaris arion)

The insects I have discussed so far probably don’t seem surprising, but could you imagine that a butterfly would be able to successfully imitate an ant?

Amazing but true, the large blue butterfly has a special tactic in which it convinces ants to nurture its eggs and raise its young through the act of brood parasitism. When the young hatch, they are incredibly similar to ant larvae so it really doesn’t take too much convincing for the ants to do the hard work of parenting. Even when the larvae grow a little more, their antennae look so much like those of ants that they continue to fool their surrogate parents.

Not only do the larvae look similar but they also smell similar since they’re able to release chemicals that trick the ants. And if that wasn’t enough, consider that the sounds they make are pretty much indeterminable from those of the ant larvae.

But that’s kind of where the fun ends because these caterpillars will feed on their adopted siblings, beginning with bigger ones while waiting for the smaller eggs to grow. It’s known that the adult female will target specific ant species for the greatest effect and this largely depends on where the butterfly is found, being a species that has a wide distribution throughout Europe and Asia between France and China. That said, there has been a notable decline in large blue butterfly populations with conservationists looking at ways their habitat can be protected.

7. Katydid (Eurycorypha spp.)

Certain Katydid species employ myrmecomorphy as a defense mechanism against predators.

With more than 6400 species, the katydid is one of the most diverse insect species in the tropics and there are some species that have a striking resemblance to ants! They use this form of myrmecomorphy as a way of defending themselves from predation. However, these insects don’t typically develop their ant-like traits until they reach adulthood which usually happens around three to four months into their lives. Although, there are some katydid nymphs that use myrmecomorphy to protect them in their most vulnerable stage of life. These nymphs have very long antennae and coloration that’s remarkably similar to an ant.

While the katydid doesn’t use chemical deception, it is well known for its ability to effectively appear just like an ant and it may have several morphological adaptations to its shape and coloration. What’s more, these insects may also use behavioral adaptations such as the way they move to ensure they’re as convincing as possible.

Not all species of katydid are able to mimic ants and the Eurocorypha is a Southeast Asian species that displays generalized mimicry meaning it can imitate a number of ant species, often based on which ones are found within its tropical forest ecosystem.

8. Feather Legged Assassin Bug (Ptilocnemus lemur)

The hairy gland from the feather legged assassin bug releases chemicals that attract ants.
Jean & Fred / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

The feather-legged assassin bug may look about as far from an ant as anything you could imagine with its very unique form. However, these bugs are known to feed on ants and will paralyze them using a special gland called a trichome.

This hairy gland releases chemicals that attract ants and this is a form of mimicry. Using these familiar chemicals along with the jerky leg movements of an ant, the feather-legged assassin bug is able to sit among ant trails and attract its prey right to it.

What’s more, since these bugs have coloration that allows them to blend into their surroundings, they also use camouflage when hunting. They’re found in Australia and their mimicry is perfectly adapted to attract the attention of a certain species; the jack jumper ant.

This behavior begins in the nymph stages and even though the ants are typically bigger than the assassin bug nymphs, their tactics are still incredibly successful owing to how easily attracted the ants are to their chemical secretions.

9. Nymphister kronaueri

Nymphister kronaueri, a type of histerid beetle, was formally described in 2017.
Christoph von Beeren & Alexey K. Tishechkin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

A type of histerid beetle, Nymphister kronaueri was only formally described in 2017. Because of it’s such recent discovery, there’s still a lot to learn about this creature but it became evident right from the get-go that it was indeed an insect that practices myrmecomorphy.

But what’s interesting is that this form of mimicry is so specific with the beetle looking just like the abdomen of the ant. It actually hitches a ride of the back of ants and blends in seamlessly.

But why does it do this?

As I said, there’s still a lot to learn about this species that doesn’t even have a common name yet. But what we do know is that, after latching onto the army ant with its mandibles and tucking its legs in, the Nymphister kronaueri is easily able to move to a location without expending any energy. This is known as phoretic transport.

Nymphister kronaueri is found in Costa Rica and is so small (at less than 1.6 mm) that it’s easily able to disguise itself, leaving its army ant taxi completely unharmed, even if it does look as though it has two abdomens.

10. Myrmecoris gracilis

As Myrmecoris gracilis, a bug from the Miridae family, matures, it gradually develops ant-like features, employing them for aggressive mimicry.
Ian Alexander / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

As the Myrmecoris gracilis, a bug from the Miridae family, grows it begins to develop ant-like features that it uses for aggressive mimicry in an effort to avoid being predated. However, it’s also clear that this species may also use its mimicry as a way of preying on the very ants that it is mimicking.

It not only does this by having an ant-like appearance in terms of color and shape but also through the way that it moves. Like many other ant-mimics, the Myrmecoris gracilis also has long front legs which look like the antennae of an ant. However, it doesn’t make it look like any ant species in particular. Instead, Myrmecoris gracilis resembles ants in general, giving it greater adaptability in the various habitats it is found around the world.

In terms of hunting, Myrmecoris gracilis is able to use its ant-like appearance to get into ant colonies and prey on the members. When it gets into a colony, it blends in perfectly and can both hunt and benefit from protection from predators with ease.

11. Australian Walking Stick (Extatosoma tiaratum)

The Australian walking stick is a species of stick insect which, as we know, already benefits from the natural camouflage of appearing like a stick. But this species takes things even further and also resembles an ant with its modified antennae, unique coloration, and body shape.

What’s really interesting is that this happens in the stick’s nymphal stage when it hatches into an ant’s nest. That’s because after the female lays her eggs, they’re carried off to an ant’s nest where the nats feed on the knob of the egg, while the rest remains intact. It can take between one and three years for the nymph to emerge and, since it closely resembles the red-headed black ant, it can safely navigate through the nest and remain protected. Although, there are some that are known to glide through the tree canopy after hatching.

Not only do these nymphs look like ants, but they may also mimic their movements and while they are known to be associated with a specific species, these adaptations are very general so the Australian walking stick is able to mimic many species within the forested habitat in which they are found.

What’s even more interesting is that this species moves from its nymphal stage where it looks like an ant, to its adult stage, where it looks like a stick without the need for a pupal stage, further enhancing its survival. Males are typically smaller than females but in any case, they both have ant-like features.

12. Velvet Ants (Mutillidae spp.)

The Mutillidae family comprises over 7000 species, commonly known as velvet ants due to their striking resemblance to ants.

How can an ant mimic an ant? Well, it can’t but even the name of this creature is deceptive because the velvet ant isn’t actually an ant at all but a species of wasp. There are more than 7,000 species of Mutillidae spp and they’re called velvet ants because of how much they look like an ant. However, it’s only the females that benefit from this appearance but they have had to give up the gift of flight since they are wingless.

They use aggressive mimicry as a way of avoiding being detected by predators. Not only do the females lack wings but they are also often covered in thick hairs which is where they get the name velvet ant and causes them to look like specific species of ant. The species that they may mimic depends on their habitat and what species are found within their ecosystem. Since they are found worldwide, this is incredibly diverse. In addition, they’re known to walk in a very similar fashion to ants with erratic and jerky movements.

Unlike some myrmecomorphy-engaging insects, the velvet ant is not able to produce chemicals that resemble ant pheromones. However, they do have potent venom and painful sting. What’s more, they’re able to share signals with predators which serve as a warning not to try and consume them.

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