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Wasmannian anatomical mimicry increases organismal success

Wasmannian mimicry refers to a type of mimicry in which the mimic resembles the host that it commensally lives with in a colony. These mimics are dubbed inquilines, and occur mostly in the social insects of Hymenoptera. One striking example of this kind of mimicry occurs in the myrmecophilous (ant-loving) wasp species Paralypsis enervis and Aclitus sappaphis (Wojcik 1989). These wasps live peacefully in ant colonies and parasitize the aphids that the ants usually protect. This occurs largely because P. enervis and A. sappaphis have over time come to mimic ant mouthparts, and with these modified mouthparts are able to engage in successful trophallaxis, or the transfer or food and other liquids among members of a colony or nest via mouth-to-mouth or anus-to-mouth mechanisms, with the ants. This is a primary example of how anatomical mimicry can significantly impact the behavior and success of a species, in this case in terms of getting food, a habitat, and other resources (Wojcik 1989).

Discussion questions

  1. Name three kinds of mimicry, define them, and give an example of each.
  2. What is the difference between chemical insignificance and chemical mimicry? What type of mimicry are organisms that utilize these methods illustrating, and for what purpose?
  3. For what behavioral purposes can mimicry be beneficial?


  • Aggressive mimicry – Resemblances that allow a predator or parasite to avoid detection by their prey by sharing the same attributes as the harmless model they parasitize or prey on (Rettenmeyer 1970).
  • Batesian mimicry – Resemblances that allow a mimic to share signals with the model host while lacking the attributes that make it unprofitable or unpalatable to predators (McIver&Stonedahl 1993).
  • Chemical insignificance – The production of as few chemical recognition cues as possible in order to avoid recognition as an intruder species by a host (Lambardi et al. 2007).
  • Chemical mimicry – The production of chemical recognition cues similar to the host in order to avoid recognition as an intruder species by a host (Lambardi et al. 2007).
  • Cleptoparasitism – A method of feeding where the parasite steals food or other resources from the host (Dettner&Liepert 1994).
  • Cuticular hydrocarbons – Organic molecules consisting of primarily carbon and hydrogen that are present on the tough outer coverings of the insects. These usually serve as recognition cues (Howard&Blomquist 2005).
  • Eusocial – A term describing the highest level of organization in a hierarchal social structure. Eusocial organisms exhibit reproductive division of labor with and without sterile castes, overlapping generations, and cooperative care of the young (Sherratt 2002).
  • Gaster – The bulbous section of the abdomen present in Hymenoptera (McIver&Stonedahl 1993).
  • Holometabolous – A term describing insects that go through complete metamorphosis between their larval and mature adult stages (Ayasse et al. 2001).
  • Hymenoptera – One of the largest orders of insects comprising the ants, bees, wasps, and sawflies. The name Hymenoptera refers to the heavy membranous wings that these insects share (Sledge et al. 2001).
  • Müllerian mimicry – Resemblances that allow a mimic to share warning signals with the model host with both species also sharing honest anti-predation attributes (Rettenmeyer 1970).
  • Scopa – Modifications, usually on the hind legs, of bees that serve as pollen-carrying baskets (Dettner&Liepert 1994).
  • Social parasite – An organism that benefits from and takes advantage of interactions between members of social organisms at the expense of these social hosts (Lorenzi 2003).
  • Solid-phase micro-extraction – A sample preparation technique involving the use of a fiber coated with a solid extraction phase that can extract both volatile and non-volatile analytes from either liquid or gas samples. After extraction, the fiber is transferred to a gas chromatograph, where separation of the analyte and analysis occurs. Also known as SPME (Turillazzi et al. 2000).
  • Wasmannian mimicry – Commensal or mutualistic resemblances that facilitate a mimic living with its host (Rettenmeyer 1970).


  • Anderson C, Cremer S, Heinze J. 2003. Live and let die: why fighter males of the ant Cardiocondyla kill each other but tolerate their winged rivals. Behav Ecol. 14(1):54-62.

    This paper offers an explanation for the female chemical mimicry seen in winged males of Cardiocondyla obscurior , arguing that female chemical mimicry subdues aggressive wingless males and prevents them from attacking winged males because evolutionarily, letting the winged male imposters live has been less costly than killing a virgin queen.

  • Ayasse M, Paxton RJ, Tengo J. 2001. Mating behavior and chemical communication in the order Hymenoptera. Annu Rev Entomol. 46:31-78.

    This article adeptly discusses both intraspecific sexual mimicry and interspecific sexual mimicry in Hymenoptera how it affects reproduction.

  • Bagnères AG, Errard C, Mulheim C, Joulie C, Lange C. 1991. Induced mimicry of colony odors in ants. J Chem Ecol. 17:1641-1644.
  • Bagnères AG, Lorenzi MC, Dusticier G, Turillazzi S, Clement JL. 1996. Chemical usurpation of a nest by paper wasp parasites. Science. 272:889-892.
  • Bonavita-Cougourdan A, Theraulaz G, Bagnères AG, Roux M, Pratte M, Provost E, Clement JL. 1991. Cuticular hydrocarbons, social organization, and ovarian development in a polistine wasp: Polistes dominulus Christ. Comp Biochem Physiol. 100B:667-680.
  • Cervo R. 2006. Polistes wasps and their social parasites: an overview. Ann Zool Fennici. 43:531-549.
  • Dani FR, Morgan ED, Turillazzi S. 1996a. Dufour gland secretion of Polistes wasp: chemical composition and possible involvement in nestmate recognition ( Hymenoptera: vespidae ). J Insect Physiol. 42(6):541-548.
  • Dani FR, Fratini S, Turillazzi S. 1996b. Behavioural evidence for the involvement of Dufour’s gland secretion in nestmate recognition in the social wasp Polistes dominulus (Hymenoptera: Vespidae). Behav Ecol Sociobiol. 38:311-319.
  • Dani FR, Jones GR, Destri S, Spencer SH, Turrillazzi S. 2001. Deciphering the recognition signature within the cuticular chemical profile of paper wasps. Anim Behav. 62:165-171.
  • Dettner K, Liepert C. 1994. Chemical mimicry and camouflage. Annu Rev Entomol. 39:129-154.
  • Espelie KE, Hermann HR. 1988. Congruent cuticular hydrocarbons: biochemical convergence of a social wasp, an ant, and a host plant. Biochem Syst Ecol. 16:505-508.
  • Field SA, Keller MA. 1993. Alternative mating tactics and female mimicry as post-copulatory mate-guarding behavior in the parasitic wasp Cotesia rubecula . Anim Behav. 46:1183-1189.

    In a polygynous parasitic wasp species, Cotesia rubecula , several males compete for a single female, leading to the development of female mimicry is a mate-guarding mechanism.

  • Howard RW, Blomquist GJ. 2005. Ecological, behavioral, and biochemical aspects of insect hydrocarbons. Annu Rev Entomol. 50:371-393.
  • Kaib MJ, Heinze J, Ortius D. 1993. Cuticular hydrocarbon profiles in the slave-making ant Harpagoxenus sublaevis and its hosts. Naturwissenschaften. 80:281-285.
  • Lahav S, Soroker V, Hefetz A, Vander Meer RK. 1999. Direct behavioral evidence for hydrocarbons as ant recognition discriminators. Naturwissenschaften. 86:246-249.
  • Lambardi D, Dani FR, Turillazzi S, Boomsma JJ. 2007. Chemical mimicry in an incipient leaf-cutting ant social parasite. Behav Ecol Sociobiol. 61:843-851.

    This article uniquely describes the subtle difference between chemical insignificance and chemical mimicry when one species parasitizies another. Both are forms of behavioral mimicry related to social parasitism.

  • Lenoir A, Malosse C, Yamaoka R. 1997. Mimicry between parasitic ants of the genus Formicoxenus and their host Myrmica (Hymenoptera, Formicidae). Biochem Syst Ecol. 25(5):379-389.

    Through adoption experiments, this paper suggested that chemical mimicry of the host’s cuticular hydrocarbons was not innate, but was acquired by parasite ants during the first days of their adult lives, allowing for false nestmate recognition and successful parasitization of the host colony.

  • Liepert C, Dettner K. 1993. Recognition of aphid parasitoids by honeydew-collecting ants: the role of cuticular lipids in a chemical mimicry system. J Chem Ecol. 19(10):2143-2153.
  • Lorenzi MC. 2003. Social wasp parasites affect the nestmate recognition abilities of their hosts ( Polistes atrimandibularis and P. biglumis , Hymenoptera, Vespidae). Insectes Soc. 50:82-87.
  • McIver JD, Stonedahl G. 1993. Myrmecomorphy: morphological and behavioral mimicry of ants. Annu Rev Entomol. 38:351-379.
  • Monnin T, Malosse C, Peeters C. 1998. Solid-phase microextraction and cuticular hydrocarbon differences related to reproductive activity in queenless ant Dinoponera quadriceps . J Chem Ecol. 24(3):473-490.
  • Pasteur G. 1982. A classificatory review of mimicry systems. Annu Rev Ecol Syst. 13:169-199.
  • Rettenmeyer CW. 1970. Insect mimicry. Annu Rev Entomol. 15:43-74.

    This general review on insect mimicry contains definitions and examples of Batesian, Müllerian, aggressive, and Wasmannian mimicry and discusses how behavioral mimicry may be more important among mimics of Hymenoptera than Lepidoptera because the behavior of some ants, bees, and wasps is their most conspicuous behavior, and thus, is the most likely to be mimicked.

  • Sherratt TN. 2002. The evolution of imperfect mimicry. Behav Ecol. 13(6):821-826.

    Hymenopteran antennae probing around to get a feel for the surroundings are mimicked by hoverflies who wave their legs around to deter predators. This is an example of imperfect mimicry. The author discusses that model-mimic similarity and mimic effectiveness is typically nonlinear and that different mimic phenotypes arise in response to the amount of model organisms there are in which mimicking can confer benefit.

  • Sledge MF, Dani FR, Cervo R, Dapporto L, Turillazzi S. 2001. Recognition of social parasites as nest-mates: adoptions of colony-specific host cuticular odours by the paper wasp parasite Polistes sulcifer . Proc R Soc Lond. 268:2253-2260.

    This is the first compelling empirical evidence that parasites not only adopt host species-specific odors, but also a colony-specific signature.

  • Strassmann JE, Hughes CR, Queller DC. 1990. Colony defense in the social wasp, Parachartergus colobopterus . Biotropica. 22(3):324-327.
  • Strohm E, Kroiss J, Herzner G, Laurien-Kehnen C, Boland W, Schreier P, Schmitt T. 2008. A cuckoo in wolves’ clothing? Chemical mimicry in a specialized cuckoo wasp of the European beewolf (Hymenoptera, Chrysididae and Crabronidae). Front Zool. 5(2):1-12.
  • Turillazzi S, Sledge MF, Dani FR, Cervo R, Massolo A, Fondelli L. 2000. Social hackers: integration in the host chemical recognition system by a paper wasp social parasite. Naturwissenschaften. 87:172-176.
  • Vander Meer RK, Jouvenaz DP, Wojcik DP. 1989. Chemical mimicry in a parasitoid (Hymenoptera: Eucharitidae) of fire ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). J Chem Ecol. 15(8):2247-2261.

    Consistent with the knowledge of nestmate recognition and preferential treatment of ant workers to their brood, this original research article showed that gas chromatographic profiles of hexane soaks of various stages of the ectoparasitic wasp’s ( Orasema sp. ) relationship with the host fire ant ( Solenopsis invicta ) developed passively over time, as the parasite acquired the colony odor, via simple contact and other social interactions.

  • Wojcik DP. 1989. Behavioral interactions between ants and their parasites. Fla Entomol. 72(1):43-51.

    Because of their modified mouthparts, which mimic ant mouthparts, the wasps are able to engage in trophyllaxis with the ants. This is an example of how anatomical adaptation and behavioral mimicry (trophyllaxis, feeding patterns, etc.) combine to impact the behavior and success of a wasp species, in this case in terms of getting food, habitat, and resources.

About the author

I was born in Minnesota, but have spent almost my entire life growing up in Sugar Land, TX. One of my favorite activities is to spend quality time hanging out with my friends and family. As a proud son of Texas, I also love football and all sports. My favorite sport to play, however, is tennis. I wrote this chapter as a result of an interest in Hymenoptera that I developed after taking an insect biology class at Rice University. When I started learning about animal behavior, I became very interested in how mimicry, something so common in my favorite order of insects, could affect their behaviors. This paper is what came of that interest. I truly learned a lot from writing this chapter, and I hope it was helpful for those of you who chose to read this far!

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Source:  OpenStax, Mockingbird tales: readings in animal behavior. OpenStax CNX. Jan 12, 2011 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11211/1.5
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