Let’s imagine for a moment that you’re a male Lissopimpla excelsa wasp in the prime of your reproductive life. You’ve been buzzing about over the local Australian flora for the better part of the morning looking to make contact with a female who’s “a bit of a go-er” (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more). Suddenly just off to your right you notice an attractive possible candidate for a bit of intimate ichneumon interaction. Making your approach you clearly perceive the scent of a receptive female L. excelsa. However upon making contact, you notice a complete lack of movement on your partner’s part, but as no resistance is perceived, you get on with business.
The assignation completed, you make a quick exit from your coital companion, curiously finding the parts of your body that made contact with the lithesome but curiously docile lass covered in a fine powdery substance. Sad to say, my horny hymenopteran friend, but you have been duped by one of the Cryptostylis genus of orchids that have evolved to make you and your fellow L. excelsa think them to be females of your species in order to spread their pollen between their own kind. Indeed, if this same experience has not already happened to you before, it likely will again happen in your future. After all, four different members of the Cryptostylis genus are counting on you to be so deceived, and would that you could read in textbooks the common name given to you by entomologists, Orchid Dupe Wasp, you would already know this.
By the time I reached this bit of information in one of the final chapters of Martin Stevens’ new book, Cheats and Deceits; How Animals and Plants Exploit and Mislead, my mind was already in such a whirl with so much new information about mimicry, deception, and a host of other evolutionarily ingenious tactics practiced by the planet’s flora and fauna that my beloved and long-suffering wife had nearly banned me from bringing yet one more example of the subject to her attention. Fortunately for my sake, she is far too good natured to do such a thing, fearing – I suspect – that my head might very well explode if I’m not allowed to give vent to such new discoveries and thus relieve the pressure. Nevertheless, it was likely a good thing for our marriage that I read the above-mentioned chapter whilst safely encased in an winged aluminum tube 38,000 feet above the state of Montana, where my fellow passengers had little to fear from me as I long ago learned by experience not to bring such things as the curious sexual habits of insects to the attention of my adjacent seat-mates.
Although I’ve previously read a number of very interesting books on the camouflage and cryptic coloration practiced by assorted creatures (many of which were, to my great delight, discovered in the end notes to Dr. Stevens’ own book), I have not previously had the pleasure of reading anything quite like Cheats and Deceits. In its pages, Dr. Stevens doesn’t merely explain how this or that animal or plant tricks potential predators or prey into not seeing it or thinking it to be something other than what it is; rather he delves deep into how (so far as researchers have been able to discover, at least) such processes work, how and why they came to be, and how the balance of the deceived and the deceivers is kept in balance. From Batesian mimicry and its far less discussed costs to both the mimic as well as the model, to the careful limit that must be placed by those species practicing deception upon just how often they must be honest for their tricks to continue to work.
For example, the Fork-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus adsimilis) of Africa, practices a type of kleptoparasitism (stealing food from others) that is accomplished by associating with other birds or mammals and, when it notices one of its companions to have a choice bit of food, making a loud vocal alarm call that causes said food-possessing creature to drop what it was eating and flee to safety. The problem, as Dr. Stevens explains, is that if the drongo makes too many false alarm calls, other creatures will begin to ignore it, thus it must also make genuine calls when necessary as well for its scheme to remain believable.
However of all the fascinating examples of cheating and deception given by Dr Stevens in the book – and they are myriad – none struck me as so amazing as a point he makes during his explanation of the perceptual deception of bowerbird females by males at their intricately decorated bowers. By embellishing the paths to their bowers with a variety of colorful objects, the male bowerbirds entice the females to position themselves in just the right spot for the males to display to their best advantage. To those who might have watched their share of Sir David Attenborough’s brilliant films, such information might not be new.
However now add to it the recent discovery that Dr. Stevens adds the story: that the male bowerbirds arrange pebbles leading through the bower’s viewing channel in order of size so that the effect of forced perspective (the manipulation of perception through the positioning of differently sized objects in a manner that makes the viewer misperceive the distance or size of an observed subject) makes them appear larger when viewed from a particular vantage point – the very vantage point where they have induced the female bowerbird to stand while viewing the male’s mating display. Therefore male bowerbirds apparently understand the visual concept of forced perspective! And should this be thought happenstance, researchers who have disarranged these positioned pebbles have observed that the male bowerbirds carefully replace them to restore the effect.
Needless by now to note, I found Martin Stevens’ Cheat and Deceits to be absolutely fascinating. The subjects he takes up, the remarkable examples he provides, and the clarity of his writing style – intelligent and learned yet at the same time enjoyable and even at times witty – make this a book well suited to both the amateur naturalist (for whom it should be considered essential reading) as well as the professional (to whom it is also highly recommended for the broadening effects it is likely to have on the mind, regardless of one’s particular specialization). Therefore no matter what may be your own particular standing or status in regard to natural history, I give Martin Stevens’ Cheats and Deceits my most enthusiastic recommendation.
Author: Martin Stevens
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Pages: 296 pp., 69 color images
Published: 1 May 2016
In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.