Whether to ward off predators or to exploit their victims, creatures can gain advantage by posing as different creatures. Illustration by Lou Benesch
When Elizabeth Kolbert reviews a book we know that at least the review is a must-read:
Why the Animal Kingdom Is Full of Con Artists
Some crows “cry wolf” to snatch food from their neighbors; some caterpillars trick ants into treating them like queens. What can we learn from beasts that bluff?
On April 20, 1848, Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Walter Bates set off for the Amazon on a boat named Mischief. The two young men—Bates was twenty-three, Wallace twenty-five—had met a few years earlier, probably at a library in Leicester, in England’s East Midlands. Both were passionate naturalists, and both were strapped for cash. (Neither had been able to afford university.) To finance their adventures, they planned to ship specimens back to London, where they could be sold to wealthy collectors.
For reasons that no one has ever been able to explain—but that many have speculated about—Wallace and Bates separated soon after they reached Brazil. In the decade that followed, Wallace amassed an immense trove of new species; lost most of them in a ship fire; set off again, for Southeast Asia; and, with Charles Darwin, discovered natural selection.
Bates, meanwhile, remained in Brazil. He sailed up the Tapajós, an Amazon tributary, and then up the Cupari, a tributary of the Tapajós. Travel in the region was often agonizingly slow; to get from the town of Óbidos to Manaus, a journey of less than four hundred miles, took him nine weeks. (At some point during the trip, he was robbed of most of the money he was carrying.) Bates would find a congenial town and spend months, even years, there, making daily forays into the surrounding rain forest. He tromped around in a checked shirt and denim pants, an outfit considered outré by the British merchants he encountered in Brazil, who wore their top hats rain or shine. Continue reading →