, Volume 12, Issue 1, pp 7–24 | Cite as

Mimicry, Camouflage and Perceptual Exploitation: the Evolution of Deception in Nature

  • Enrique FontEmail author


Despite decades of study, mimicry continues to inspire and challenge evolutionary biologists. This essay aims to assess recent conceptual frameworks for the study of mimicry and to examine the links between mimicry and related phenomena. Mimicry is defined here as similarity in appearance and/or behavior between a mimic and a model that provides a selective advantage to the mimic because it affects the behavior of a receiver causing it to misidentify the mimic, and that evolved (or is maintained by selection) because of those effects. Mimics copy cues or signals that are already in use as part of a stable communication system, but offer misleading information to receivers. Mimicry overlaps, both conceptually and evolutionarily, with camouflage and perceptual exploitation but the overlap is only partial, which may create some confusion. Certain types of camouflage (e.g. masquerade) conform to the definition of mimicry, while others (e.g. background matching) are not considered mimicry because they prevent detection rather than recognition of the camouflaged animal. Mimicry, on the other hand, works by exploiting peculiarities of the receiver at higher stages of sensory processing involving recognition and classification of stimuli. Perceptual exploitation models of trait evolution are also closely related to mimicry, and sensory traps in particular may act as a precursor for true mimicry to evolve. The common thread through these diverse phenomena is deception of a receiver by a mimic. Thus receiver deception (i.e. perceptual error) emerges as a key characteristic of mimicry shared with some types of camouflage and perceptual exploitation.


Mimicry Deception Communication Camouflage Perceptual exploitation 



I thank Karel Kleisner and Timo Maran for the invitation to participate in this special issue of Biosemiotics, which has given me the opportunity to clarify my thoughts (although perhaps not those of the readers) on mimicry. I also thank P. Carazo, R. Vane-Wright and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Ethology Laboratory, Cavanilles Institute of Biodiversity and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of ValenciaValenciaSpain

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