In nature, it doesn't always pay to be yourself. In fact, pretending to be something you're not can keep you alive.
Take the cinereous mourner (Laniocera hypopyrra), a bird that lives in the Amazon rain forest. Chicks of this species sport brilliant orange feathers with black polka dots—plumage that pretty much advertises them to passersby. (See "Masters of Deception: 5 Two-Faced Species.")
For a defenseless bird that can't even fly yet, you'd think this is a bad evolutionary strategy. That is, unless the predators mistake you for another creature entirely.
"The chicks of this species look like a hairy caterpillar," said Gustavo Londoño, a researcher at ICESI University in Colombia, "and that caterpillar is known to be toxic." (Related: "The Caterpillar Defense.")
Londoño discovered the ruse a few years ago in the Madre de Dios region (map) of Peru. He noticed that when cinereous mourner nests are disturbed, the chicks don't cry out for food like most chicks do. Instead, the nestlings bob their heads in a bizarre, caterpillar-like motion.
In a study, published in the January issue of the American Naturalist, Londoño's team reveal another discovery: The nestlings perform the same dance when their parents return to the nest.
It's only after the adults offer a secret vocalization that the chicks know it's safe to drop the act and beg for food.
But cinereous mourners aren't the only imposters that mimic completely different species.
Praying Mantis "Orchid"
For bees, butterflies, and other pollinators in Malaysia, choosing which flowers to nuzzle is a dangerous game. That's because some of the flowers aren't flowers at all, but praying mantises in disguise.
Unlike the green and brown worn by many mantis species, the orchid mantis (Hymenopus coronatus) varies between shades of pink and white. The insects also have petal-shaped lobes on their walking legs that give them a very convincing flower-like shape. (Related: "Praying Mantis Mimics Flower to Trick Prey.")
James O'Hanlon, of Macquarie University in Sydney, was the first to actually demonstrate that orchid mantises were luring prey in with their subterfuge. He said it's important to note that the mantises aren't simply lurking among other flowers, but rather sitting out in the open.
"They don't hide. They advertise their presence to pollinators and lure them in on their own," said O'Hanlon.
In fact, when given an option, pollinators were more likely to fly into the clutches of an orchid mantis than the flowers the mantises mimic.
Only discovered in 1998, the impressive invertebrate has so far been seen impersonating the venomous barbs of a lionfish, the telltale stripes of sea snakes, and the swimming pattern of a flatfish or sole.
But that's not all. According to some divers, the list of animals in this mimic's repertoire may cover jellyfish, anemones, sea stars, crabs, stingrays, and myriad other creatures. (See photos: "Masters of Undersea Camouflage.")
Not all animals want to hide from the world, of course. Some, like the parasitic flatworm Leucochloridium paradoxum, actually long to be eaten.
This is because L. paradoxum can complete its life cycle only if it somehow finds its way into the intestinal tract of a bird-not an easy feat for a fluke that spends most of its life on the ground. (Related: "New Study Upholds Reputation of Classic Parasite.")
To get itself into the belly of a bird, L. paradoxum hitches a ride in the body of a snail. Once inside the snail, the parasites develop big, pulsating broodsacs within the snail's eyestalks. These broodsacs catch the attention of birds, which mistake the throbbing eyestalks for the bodies of caterpillars, grubs, or maggots. (Read more about mindsuckers in National Geographic magazine.)
The flukes even control the behavior of the snails, making them climb high up grass stalks—the better for birds to spot them. Once the bird eats the snail, the parasite moves on to its next host.
Truth really can be stranger than fiction.