A Model and its Mimic

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Velvet ant-mimicking carabid beetle from Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique.

Yesterday I was flipping rocks in Chitengo Camp, and under one of them I saw a large black and white spotted insect that I recognized as a velvet ant (Mutillidae), a family of wingless wasps known for their extremely painful stings. I watched it race under the rock, and then decided to catch it. This proved to be an easy thing to do, as when I lifted the rock again, it ran right into my container. When I got a closer look at it, I was shocked – this was no velvet ant! It was a harmless carabid beetle that seemed exactly like a velvet ant. A super cool animal.
A few hours later, a very similar-looking insect came into my possession from the same area. When I looked at it, I realized that here was the model, the real velvet ant that could seriously sting me. Now I had a wonderful opportunity to shoot the model and mimic together. I placed both animals in my photo studio and placed a petri dish over them. The velvet ant raced around like crazy, while the carabid beetle sat quietly. Once the velvet ant calmed down a few minutes later, I gently herded the carabid over to the velvet ant, and took the shot. Below is the result. I was blown away by the unbelievable similarity between the velvet ant and the carabid beetle, how two insects so unrelated can seem so alike. The mimicry is almost perfect, right down to the positioning of the white spots and the dull red coloration of the thorax.

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The model velvet ant (left), and its mimic, a carabid beetle (right).

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