Photograph by John Tiddy, MYN/Minden
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The flying duck orchid (Caleana major) tricks insects into spreading its pollen.

Photograph by John Tiddy, MYN/Minden

A Plant That Looks Like Poop and Other Sneaky Disguises

A South African herb has evolved a clever strategy to attract pollinating dung beetles.

Plants just sit there all day and look pretty, right?

That’s what they want you to think.

Many orchids and other plants are great impressionists, masquerading as insects, animals, and even poop. Such disguises help protect them from hungry herbivores, or aid with pollination and dispersing their seeds. (See gorgeous National Geographic pictures of sneaky orchids.)

Weird Animal Question of the Week took author’s prerogative to ask: What plants are masterful mimics, and why?

Watch a video of dung beetles rolling away seeds that they're fooled into thinking are dung.

Clever Orchids

People may love orchids, but many insects really, really love orchids. That’s because they can't resist their allure.

University of Arizona entomologist Katy Prudic calls some hammer orchids of Australia downright “kinky” in how they seduce wasps into pollinating.

The orchids have a central petal that resemble female thynnine wasps and give off a sexy wasp scent. Unsuspecting male wasps then swoop in to pick up the supposed female, both literally and figuratively.

The male's arrival makes the dummy female swing upward and "hammer" him into the part of the flower that contains the pollen. Dusted with powder, the insects fly on to the next orchid, thus doing the plants’ reproductive work. (See "New 'Wasp' Orchids Tempt Male Bugs.")

Australia's flying duck orchids are similarly tricky. And field digger wasps are duped into trying to mate with the northern European fly orchid due to the flower's resemblance to a female wasp's beautiful back.

The Australian bird orchid, Chiloglottis reflexa, also has the wasp look and scent, but goes a step further—or we could say, lower. (Also see "Orchid Has 'Active' Sex With Itself—A Flower First?")

“Wasp females have no wings and stay close to the ground when releasing pheromones,” says Steven Handel, an evolutionary ecologist at Rutgers University via email. For this reason, the bird orchid also grows low to the ground.

In experiments published in the journal Oecologia, Handel and colleagues found that bird orchids raised higher off the ground did not attract male wasps—presumably because they know females never fly.

Butterfly Eggs, Mice, and … Dung?

But it’s not just orchids or flowers that can deceive. (Read about a praying mantis that looks like an orchid.)

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Yellow spots mimick eggs of Heliconius butterflies on a passion flower plant. The eggs deter female butterflies from landing there and laying their eggs (which grow into leaf-munching caterpillars).

The passion flower vine, which grows in the Americas, “has tiny yellow spots on its leaves that resemble the eggs of its primary predator, Heliconius butterflies,” Prudic says.

Since female butterflies won't share their egg-laying spots with other females, they avoid the spotted leaves, and the clever plant stays safe from caterpillars. (Related: "The Sneaky Life of the World’s Most Mysterious Plant.")

One plant propagates itself by sleight-of-seed.

South Africa's Cape restio is an herb whose seed mimics antelope poop, Prudic says. This attracts "dung beetles that will deliver the seed to a new home."

Watson's pipevine flower of the southwestern United States “is believed by some to mimic mouse ears in shape, form, and smell," giving off a musty odor, Prudic says.

It's pollinated by blood-sucking sandflies “who think the same thing,” she says. The fly crawls in the plant’s fuzzy, veiny, ear-like tube thinking it’s getting a blood meal and is trapped for the night, only to be released the next morning covered in pollen.

Oh, like you never woke up like that.

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