Mimicry is a pretty common phenomenon in the animal kingdom. It’s quite useful in deterring predators, like for the viceroy butterfly which mimics the coloring of the poisonous monarch to dissuade other animals from eating it. It’s also useful for predators trying to catch prey – the anglerfish has a spine that looks like a small shrimp or worm, which lures in unsuspecting prey. But probably one of the most unusual examples of mimicry is the peacock fly, Goniurellia tridens. This bizarre creature has markings on its outer wings that almost perfectly resemble ants, making the fly look like a three-in-one mega insect.
The first to identify this strange fly was Austrian scientist Friedrich Handel in back in 1910, but it hasn’t been seen much since then. Native to the Middle East, it thrives in the arid conditions of Omar and United Arab Emirates. Even Dr. Brigitte Howarth, an ecologist from Zayed University in the UAE, was taken by surprise after her first sighting of the bug. Since its wing markings are so lifelike, at first she thought maybe there were ants living on the wings in some kind of symbiotic relationship, but a closer look showed the clever facade.
There are two hypotheses explaining the purpose of the fly’s lifelike ant-inspired art, and they both may be true. The first says that when threatened by a predator, the peacock fly waves its wings back and forth to simulate ants walking around. Somehow this confuses the predator and the fly is able to escape.
The second hypothesis is that the spots are used to lure potential mates. Like in a lot of animal courtships, males compete to be the brightest and best to prove their worth as a mate for females. Male peacock flies conduct an elaborate dance, and usually the ones with the most realistic wing pictures have the best chance of getting the girl.
Scientists think the somewhat elaborate courtship has something to do with the fact that the peacock fly can only survive in specific environments, as opposed to the common house fly which can survive and find a mate almost anywhere and therefore doesn’t need any fancy mating rituals.