To survive in New York City, you’ve gotta be willing to roll with with a lot of hostility. The air quality is horrid, real estate prices kill puppies in their sleep and hordes of giant insects tear through the subways with human faces.
We’ve all heard the stories. At a distance, these man-sized mantises look like a random schmo in a trench coat—the sort of person you see on the train every day without ever really seeing them at all. If you take a close look, however, you’ll notice the “coat” actually consists of folded insect wings and the “face” comes together when the creature raises two specially-evolved forearms that together create the semblance of a human face.
This is all a case of aggressive mimicry, and it’s an even older con than three-card monty. In order for a predator or parasite to get in close to its next meal, it disguises itself as a different organism. So the Judas Breed insect employs the time-honored wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing tactic of resembling its human prey.
But here’s the catch: In cases where insects aggressively mimic their prey species, they generally mimic prospective sex partners. That’s how both the Chlorobalius leucoviridis katydid and Photinus firefly do it (one via auditory mimicry, the other visual). But just one look at the Judas Breed disguise lets you know that NO one wants to bump uglies with this ugly chap.
The Judas Breed’s tactic is really more akin to cases of aggressive mimicry where insects resemble a non-threatening third party species. As city creatures, we tend not to look too closely a odd-looking men on the train. As Louie C.K. puts it, “We don’t do that here.”
There’s also a dash of Wasmannian mimicry at play as well, in which a creature lives in close proximity with a creature and mimics it. Some jumping spiders, for instance, mimic ants so as to move unnoticed through their population. What is New York City but a vast human ant colony?
The Judas Breed’s morphology resembles that of a mantis—and, indeed, many mantis species exhibit a suburb knack for mimicry. They carry out their hunting while resembling sticks, leafs, and orchids. As with the Judas Breed, these species incorporate both wing and forearms in their disguises.
If you’ve never visited New York, then you’re probably most familiar with the Judas Breed from Guillermo del Toro’s 1997 documentary, but the film’s roots go back to a short written work from 1950 by author Donald A. Wollheim (read it here). Wollheim describes not only a species of man-mimicking urban insect, but also a variety that mimics the urban landscape—such as chimneys.
What other New York fixtures will these highly-adaptive creatures come to impersonate?
Is that a barely visible slit running down Woody Allen’s face?
Monster of the Week is a — you guessed it — weekly look at the denizens of our monster-haunted world. In some of these, we’ll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Other times, we”ll just wax philosophic about the monster’s underlying meaning. After all, the word “monstrosity” originates from the Latin monstrare, which meant to show or illustrate a point.
Image source: Mimic, 1997 - Courtesy of Miramax
Originally Published at HSW: Monster of the Week: The ‘Mimic’ Judas Breed
Robert Lamb is a senior staff writer at HowStuffWorks.com and co-host of the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast and blog. He is also a regular contributor to Discovery News. Follow him on Twitter @blowthemind.