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Fork-tailed drongo
Fork-tailed drongo © Derek Keats

Written by Gerhard van Niekerk

For billions of years, animals have learnt the skills required to survive and escape predation, adapting to their environment and learning a few tricks along the way. Unfortunately those that failed to do this did not last long.

These survivors designed ways to transmit misinformation to potential predators – such as looking toxic to predators – when in reality they are harmless. When these crafty animals escaped by using this misinformation, they passed these life-saving genes and survival skills on to the next generation.

According to Mitchell and Thomson, there are four basic levels of deception found in organisms:

• False markings on body
• False behaviour
• Feigning death
• Verbal deception

Here are only a few examples of those deceptive creatures that can be found in South Africa

Stonefish (Synanceia spp)

As a master of camouflage, the stonefish can blend in perfectly with its surroundings, making it look like a harmless stone amongst the coral, when in truth they are one of the most venomous fish around. They have a sharp dorsal fin that can deliver a very venomous and painful sting, so divers need to be extra cautious when diving in areas where this fish is found.


Common diadem butterfly (Hypolimnas misippus)

As true masters of deception, the female of this butterfly species mimics the colours of the African monarch butterfly (Danaus chrysippus aegyptius). They do this because the African monarch is toxic and foul tasting, and therefore has few predators and will generally be left alone. This mimicry – when an edible animal resembles one that is usually avoided by predators – is known as Batesian mimicry.

African monarch butterfly © Bernard Dupont (left); Common diadem butterfly © Diverseearthlibrary (right)
(left) African monarch butterfly © Bernard Dupont ; (right) Common diadem butterfly © Diverseearthlibrary

Rinkhals snake (Hemachatus haemachatus)

Apart from the fact that they have various colourations to possibly create misinformation, the rinkhals will feign death in a very convincing manner when it feels threatened, only to bite the predator (such as birds of prey) when it attempts to pick it up.

Rinkhals © Hectonichus

Fork-tailed drongo (Dicrurus adsimilis)

These clever, aggressive and fearless little birds have been called the ‘little liars’ of the bushveld – they can even sound fake alarms to get a free take-away meal! Out in the bush, the fork-tailed drongo can be seen around other species like smaller birds and dwarf mongooses. They wait for these smaller species to find food and then make use of deceptive mimicked alarms to steal the food! Animals like the dwarf mongoose will never ignore alarm calls, even if that means that they drop their insect catch and flee to safety.

Fork-tailed drongo
Fork-tailed drongo © Derek Keats

They have also been known to mimic the call of the territorial pearl-spotted owlet (Glaucidium perlatum), which often will approach the drongo, thinking it is another owlet. There is much speculation as to why the drongo would call in these owls – some say that the drongo will attempt to injure or even kill the owlets.

It is absolutely incredible how animals have been able to devise so many different ways to deceive their potential predators. For Bushwise students to see some of these adaptions and survival skills in action is always a fascinating and rewarding experience.

Pearl-spotted owlet
Pearl-spotted owlet © Derek Keats
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