You may not believe it, but the drab grey bird you see above is born a master of disguise, capable of tricking predators into thinking that it's a massive and vibrantly colored toxic caterpillar with little effort.
That's at least according to a study recently published in the journal American Naturalist, which details how the cinereous mourner (Laniocera hypopyrra) is covered with bright orange and speckled down-feathers when it is first born.
Not only does this soft plumage make the newborn birds looks like one of two large and hairy toxic caterpillars (Megalopyge or Podalia), but the birds will even wriggle like massive bugs for the first 18 days of their life.
According to the American Society of Naturalists, experts Gustavo A. Londoño, Duván Garcia, and Manuel Sánchez Martínez launched a long-term field study of these intriguing birds back in the fall of 2012. During that time, they observed this remarkable defense strategy for themselves. They found that not only was the act of these baby birds consistent and remarkably convincing, but it actually proved quite effective at keeping them safe from snakes and monkeys, who have learned to be wary of toxic meals in the forests of southeastern Peru. (Scroll to read on...)
Even more amazing is that these baby birds know to keep up the act when their mother isn't around. They lie on the floor of their nests, with their beaks and legs tucked into their furry feathers until they hear a special "all clear" call from their parent. Then, and only then, will they lift their heads to become the boisterous, but adorable sight of baby birds begging to be fed that bird watchers are familiar with.
Londoño told New Scientist that this is actually the first example of such complex mimicry ever seen in avian young, and likely developed under the unusually high predation pressures of the Amazon basin in South America.
"Mimicry plays a major role in deterring predators, but camouflage is also likely to occur when the nestling is on the nest," he said.
To learn more about these species and how exactly their various defenses developed, the researchers hope to study them again in larger populations.
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