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Animal mimicry

Choosing when to be a cleaner-fish mimic

A dangerous fish can discard a seemingly harmless disguise to suit its circumstances.


Mimicry in vertebrates is usually a permanent state — mimics resemble and normally accompany their model throughout the life stages during which they act as mimics. Here we show that the bluestriped fangblenny fish (Plagiotremus rhinorhynchos), which aggressively attacks other coral-reef fish, can turn off the mimetic colours that disguise it as the benign bluestreak cleaner wrasse, Labroides dimidiatus, and assume a radically different appearance. This opportunistic facultative mimicry extends the fangblenny's scope by allowing it to blend into shoals of small reef fish as well as to remain inconspicuous at cleaning stations.

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Figure 1: Facultative mimicry by bluestriped fangblennies (Plagiotremus rhinorhynchos; family Blenniidae).
Figure 2: Percentage of bluestriped fangblennies in mimetic (black with one blue stripe) and non-mimetic (olive/brown or orange, with two blue stripes) colour patterns.


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Correspondence to Isabelle M. Côté.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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The study was carried out from June to September 2004 at eight reef sites near the Operation Wallacea field station on Hoga Island, in the Wakatobi National Marine Park, SE Sulawesi, Indonesia. (DOC 27 kb)

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Côté, I., Cheney, K. Choosing when to be a cleaner-fish mimic. Nature 433, 211–212 (2005).

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