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Keywords:

  • butterfly ;
  • Danaus ;
  • eyespots ;
  • Nymphalid ;
  • Saturniidae

The hypothesis of satyric mimicry postulates that the colour patterns of an animal may make its identity ambiguous, and this ambiguity interferes with the process of perception in vertebrate predators for a sufficient time to allow the potential prey to take evasive action. It has now been found that eyespots and other designs on the wings of many insect species are often coupled with other wing patterns and designs. These composite images often closely resemble heads and bodies of vertebrates (including birds and reptiles) and of various invertebrates. Such images can be perceived in living insects, although only rarely in set specimens because of displacement of the components. Visual processing by non-mammalian vertebrates generally involves attention to detail, suggesting that, at least initially, and unlike humans, they perceive embedded images on insect wings and bodies and ignore the whole or Gestalt. They are therefore likely to be confused by the ambiguity of the potential prey. It can be calculated that a delay of the order of only tenths of a second in the attack on a stationary insect by a predator could result in failure of capture. It is proposed in the present review that the concept of satyric mimicry be extended to include complex imagery of other organisms. Such iconic images, which often represent toxic or dangerous animals, are particularly common amongst saturniid moths and nymphalid and danaid butterflies (including the Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus). © 2013 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2013, 109, 203–214.