The Design of Mimicry

Butterfly We were walking through the brush and a snake appeared in front of us. It was a beautiful snake with alternating red and black and yellow bands. My immediate reaction was, "Get away, that's a coral snake." Coral snakes are deadly. They have a venom that is a nerve agent, and their bite is nearly always lethal. The man I was walking with was a local person who knew the area and the snakes. He laughed and said as he picked up the snake, "No, this is just a friendly old harmless king snake." I looked in a book when I got home and saw the two snakes in pictures to be almost identical. The Sonoran mountain king snake is so much like the coral snake, it is hard to tell the difference. Side by side in the pictures I could see the difference, but I am not sure in the wild that I could do so.

SnakeThe question is "how does this mimicry come about?" This is not an area in which trial and error can be proposed, because a single bite from a coral snake removes the learner from the gene pool. Many times in nature, an animal survives because they look like some other animal that is deadly or has undesirable characteristics. There are some butterflies that look like a monarch butterfly, and since monarchs have a bitter taste that birds do not like, the look-alike butterflies are also protected. In the case of the coral snake, it appears that there is a conscious design which promotes the survival of the king snake.

Recently researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill put brightly-banded plasticine models of snakes in areas where there were coral snakes and also in areas where there were no coral snakes. When raccoons, coatis, foxes, coyotes, skunks and bears bit into the models, they left tooth marks. There were far fewer bites on the models left in areas where there were coral snakes than in areas where coral snakes did not exist. It is obvious that predators have learned to avoid anything that looks like a coral snake and so the king snake's mimicry is definitely a protective device.

Snake To enable animals to survive on the earth and yet not over-populate their food resources, there has to be a delicate balance between predation and protection against being eaten. Mimicry seems to be a very well-thought-out way to keep the balance for many forms of life. We can see God's wisdom and planning through the things He has made (Romans 1:19-22).

--Reference: Natural History, June, 2001, page 18.

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