Christopher Taylor, a PhD student at the University of Nottingham, invites you to play an insect game to assist with his research.
In the natural world, not everything is what it seems. Deception is rife, and it can be hard to know whether to trust your senses. What first looks like a dead leaf might turn out to be a katydid. Or a tasty-looking worm might actually be an angler fish’s lure. Telling the difference between a fake and the real thing can be a matter of life or death.
One type of deception is known as Batesian mimicry, whereby a harmless animal – the mimic – resembles a more dangerous one – the model – so that a predator will leave it well alone. Examples are treehoppers that look like ants, moths that look like hornets, and even caterpillars that look like snakes. It is easy to see how natural selection would give an advantage to the most convincing fakes, since they are the least likely to be eaten, leading to better and better mimicry.
Except that some mimics don’t seem to be very convincing. My interest is in hoverflies, many of which mimic bees and wasps. While some are incredibly similar to their models when seen in the field, others bear only a passing resemblance, and yet experiments in controlled conditions seem have shown that they still gain some protection. To the trained eye, there are clear differences. So why don’t predators, such as birds, pick up on these differences?
To avoid the ethical difficulties of feeding wasps to birds, as part of my work I am using humans as model predators. I have created a simple online game in which people take on the role of a bird, faced with the decision of whether to eat or to avoid certain insects. Which ones people get right, and where people make mistakes, will help to understand what information is most important in making that choice.
To help with my research, all you need to do is play the game! It is a test of your visual recognition, memory, and quick reactions. Note that, just like a predator would, you will learn by experience which ones to avoid. This means you don’t need any specific knowledge of insects in order to take the quiz, you’ll pick it up as you go along.
Have a go – it only takes five minutes