Why would an ant resemble a panda? Or a crab look like a leopard?
There is a long list of why animals evolved to look the way they do. For some, it’s about impressing potential partners or intimidating sexual rivals, says Kevin Omland, professor of biological sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. For others, it’s about camouflage, thermoregulation, or scaring off predators. Take the nonvenomous scarlet king snake. It looks just like the venomous coral snake, which helps keep potential predators away.
Some animals are intentional mimics, while some seem to have evolved the same coloration as very far flung members of the animal family tree. Check out some of the critters who can’t resist an animal print.
Though these black-and-white insects are part of a group called velvet ants, these “pandas” are actually Chilean wasps. With a fuzzy black-and-white body, white head, and black-ringed eyes, the panda ant’s resemblance to the iconic Chinese bear is uncanny.
It’s mainly the females that look ant-like, says Denis J. Brothers of the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa, by email. Their striking markings may act as a warning to predators—their stings pack a punch.
The males, which have wings, look much more like we expect wasps to, and they don’t have stingers. That’s because females’ stingers are modified ovipositors, or egg-laying organs, which males don’t have, says Justin Schmidt, entomologist at the University of Arizona and author of Sting of the Wild.
The larvae of hawk moths ward off predators by impersonating deadly pit vipers. When threatened, the caterpillars can retract their legs and expand the front segments of their bodies to make a quick change from humble caterpillar into scary serpent.
They don't have long to show off their skills though. They can only do their snake impression when molting, which occurs just a few days out of their 30-day caterpillar lifespan.
The alligator bug, also known as the peanut-head bug has a large hollow structure on top of its head that looks like eyes atop of an elongated jaw—its actual eyes are towards the back of the structure. To a predator, such as a bird, this mask might make it look a bit too much like a reptile to try its luck.
Aside from its facial disguise, it opens its wings to show eyespots that make it look like a much larger animal than it is. And if all else fails, it can emit a skunky stink to deter the pushiest predator.
“Nobody messes with a bumblebee,” says Katy Prudic, an entomologist at the University of Arizona. That’s why the bee fly evolved to look like one. Its fuzzy, striped body, which can be different colors depending on the species, helps it avoid predators, such as ambush bugs and crab spiders, which may go after a fly but would think twice about attacking a bee.
The bee-fur jacket also helps females sneak into the nests of digging bees. A female will lob eggs into the nest with from the ovipositor at the end of her abdomen. It’s like a tennis serve, Prudic says, with “precision that would make Serena Williams proud.” Once the eggs hatch, the baby bee fly intruders will eventually eat both the baby bees’ pollen stores and the baby bees themselves.
The leopard crab, also known as a calico crab, has spots similar to leopard’s. And they serve the same purpose—disruptive coloration, says Jay Stachowicz, a marine ecologist at the University of California, Davis, by email.
Think of it like a military uniform’s camouflage print, he says, in which the intent is to make a person harder to see from a distance while they’re moving. If something solid-colored is moving against a multicolored background, it’ll stand out. But a multicolored uniform moving against a multicolored background blends in better.
Similarly, the leopard-spotted crab, which usually stays partially buried in the sand, is harder for a predator to see against the sea floor than a plain crab. (Read more about why some crabs “dress up.”)
One of the strongest animals on Earth, the Hercules beetle has a perfectly good reason for its wearing a crab-claw hat: It’s “claw” evolved to match its fighting style, according to a 2014 study published in the journal PLOS One. The beetle uses its head-mounted pincer to grab and lift its rivals when fighting over females.