Müllerian Mimicry - Background

Background

Müllerian mimicry was proposed by the German zoologist and naturalist Johann Friedrich Theodor Müller (1821–1897), always known as Fritz. An early proponent of evolution, Müller offered the first explanation for resemblance between certain butterflies that had puzzled the English naturalist Henry Walter Bates, who, like Müller, spent a significant part of his life in Brazil. Müller had also seen these butterflies first hand, and collected specimens like Bates.

Understanding Müllerian mimicry is impossible without first understanding aposematism, or warning signals. Dangerous organisms with these aposematic signals are avoided by predators, who quickly learn after a bad experience not to pursue the same prey again. Learning is not actually necessary for animals which instinctively avoid certain prey; however, learning from experience is much more common. The underlying concept with predators that learn is that the warning signal makes the harmful organism easier to remember than if it remained as cryptic as possible (e.g. being still and silent, providing no scent, and blending in with the background). Aposematism and crypsis are in this way opposing concepts, but this does not mean they are mutually exclusive. Many animals remain inconspicuous until threatened, then suddenly employ warning signals, such as startling eyespots, bright colors on their undersides or loud vocalizations. In this way, they enjoy the best of both strategies.

Many different prey of the same predator may employ separate warning colors, but this makes no sense for any party. Surely if they could all get together and agree on a common warning signal, the predator would have fewer detrimental experiences, and the prey would lose fewer individuals educating it. But no such conference needs to take place, as a prey species that just so happens to look a little like a harmful species will be safer than its conspecifics, leading to a tendency toward a single warning language. This can lead to the evolution of both Batesian and Müllerian mimicry, depending on whether the prey is harmful, as well, or just a freerider. Multiple species can join this protective cooperative, expanding the mimicry ring.

Müller thus provided an explanation for 'Bates' paradox'; the mimicry was not a case of exploitation by one species, but rather a mutualistic arrangement.

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