Can you spot the imposters? Famous Canadian wildlife mimics

Have you ever been fooled by a doppelganger, a copycat, or a con artist? How about a non-human one? There are many species of wildlife that look or behave similar to other species. These species are exhibiting mimicry, an evolutionary phenomenon in which a trait similar to one in another species has resulted in the copycat species surviving and reproducing successfully. So next time you take a nature walk, keep an eye out for these Canadian wildlife imposters that will have you doing a double take.

Eastern foxsnake
Found in southwestern Ontario and Georgian Bay, the Eastern foxsnake is often mistaken for the Massasauga rattlesnake, which is Ontario’s only rattlesnake. The two snakes appear similar in colouring and pattern—but the eastern foxsnake is non-venomous. When it feels threatened, the eastern foxsnake will vibrate its tail in nearby plant debris and foliage, which creates a buzzing sound kind of like a rattle. This behaviour, coupled with its similarity in appearance to the venomous Massasauga, often leads people to misidentify the snake. Both the Eastern foxsnake and the Massasauga rattlesnake are endangered. 

Common across Canada, many species of hoverfly have black and yellow colouration patterns that mimic bees and wasps as a first line of defence against predators. At first glance, a hoverfly buzzing around you may seem intimidating—but don’t worry, they don’t have stingers. This isn’t the only thing that sets them apart from their fellow stripey pollinators. Hoverflies only have one set of wings, while bees and wasps have two. Try to resist the urge to swat them away; they eat pesky aphids and pollinate your garden, and they really are harmless! 

Photo by Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock

Spicebush swallowtail caterpillar
Found in southern Ontario, spicebush swallowtail caterpillars are either green or orange and have spotted markings on their heads that look like big snake eyes. This mimicry is meant to deter predators such as birds from making a meal out of them, tricking them into thinking they are a snake at first glance. In their early larval stages, spicebush swallowtails are brown, white, and greenish in colour, closely resembling bird poop. This is another mimicry trick that is common across many species of swallowtail, which allows them to hide from predators in plain sight. After metamorphosis, spicebush swallowtail butterflies are mostly black in colour, with white and orange spots as well as bluish-green patches towards the outer edges of their wings.

Viceroy and monarch butterflies
Perhaps the hardest mimics on the list to tell apart, the viceroy (left) and monarch butterflies (right) strongly resemble one another in colour and pattern. Found across southern Canada, there are two main ways to distinguish the viceroy from the monarch: the viceroy is smaller in size, and it has two horizontal black lines across the bottom of its wings. The likeness between viceroy and monarch butterflies is an example of Mullerian mimicry, which is when multiple noxious species (meaning they are poisonous or taste bad to predators) evolve to look similar to one another as a protection mechanism. Both the viceroy and monarch butterflies taste unpleasant to predators because the plants that they feed on contain toxic substances. This kind of mimicry also benefits predators of these species, since they only have to learn one kind of warning signal for the same kind of danger. So, everybody wins. 

Monarch butterflies move to endangered list, say conservationists

Photo by Danita Delimont/Shutterstock

Northern mockingbird
The northern mockingbird is the only mockingbird found in Canada, in southern areas of B.C., Ontario, Québec, and Atlantic Canada. These birds are masters of imitation; they can learn up to 200 different songs over their lifetimes. Northern mockingbirds primarily repeat the calls of other birds, but they can learn to mimic human sounds as well, such as sirens or car alarms. But, why do mockingbirds mimic the calls of other species? It has been theorized that this behaviour is a reproductive strategy, and that mockingbirds learn such a large repertoire because it is more attractive to potential mates. Another theory is that they mimic the calls of other songbirds to protect their territory, making the area seem more populated than it actually is to deter other birds who are looking to take up residence. The reality is that no one knows for sure why mockingbirds mimic. Other notable feathered copycats in Canada are gray catbirds and thrashers. 

An a bonus wildlife faker:

Photo by Alan B. Schroeder/Shutterstock

Brown-headed cowbird
Though not technically mimicry, the parasitic evolutionary strategy of brown-headed cowbirds makes them the ultimate con artists. After watching other birds build their nests, cowbirds sneakily swoop in to lay one of their own eggs and trick the other birds into caring for their babies. This benefits the cowbirds, as they have the capacity to lay a large number of eggs going from nest to nest without taking the time to raise their own young. Sometimes other birds will recognize the egg as foreign and remove it from their nest, but most of the time the imposter egg remains undetected. Because of this, brown-headed cowbird chicks have been raised by over 150 different species of birds! They have a large population, and are found across Canada.

Read more: The (sometimes controversial) reintroduction of 8 Canadian wildlife species

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