Researchers find harmless snakes may benefit from looking like poisonous species

Monday, November 29, 2010; 6:08 PM

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it can also save your life, especially if you're a harmless creature that mimics a poisonous one to avoid being eaten. Now, scarlet kingsnakes have shown that even imperfect imitation does the trick. These innocuous reptiles sport the same vivid bands of red, black and yellow as do venomous coral snakes, but in a different order.

The imperfect mimicry may seem like a half-finished job of natural selection, but it isn't. Bears, coyotes and hawks avoided clay models of both snakes equally, as long as their colored bands were the same size, researchers report in the December issue of the American Naturalist. Kingsnake models with wide yellow bands and thin bands of red and black weren't as convincing, however; the researchers found them riddled with tooth and claw marks.

Kingsnakes seem to try harder to mimic when there are more coral snakes around, presumably to fool a more discriminating audience.

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