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Masters of Deception: 5 Two-Faced Species

When we call a person two-faced, it’s an insult. But for some clever animals, being two-faced is a high compliment.

Many animals evolve eyespots and even false heads—like the thorny devil—to look more menacing and fake out potential predators.

But a 2010 study showed that the deceptive body parts don’t really have to look like anything—just be larger than life to produce the desired effect (seems to work for Lady Gaga). Here’s a roundup of five amazing “faces” that aren’t actually faces at all.

Peanut-Head Bug

Class act Mr. Peanut might feel it’s a bit déclassé to have his mug compared to a bug, but there’s no getting around it: The peanut-head bug has a head that looks like an unshelled peanut, and it is the coolest thing since sunglasses. Crazy cool.

peanut-head bug picture

A peanut-head bug in Costa Rica. Photograph by Robert Pickett, Visuals Unlimited/Getty Images

Fulgora laternaria also goes by the names lantern fly and alligator bug, and one look at its faux crocodile smile and you can see why. Even with a “face” like that, it doesn’t bite, instead sucking up nutrients from plants through straw-like mouthparts.

An insect with no bite would really need other defenses—after all, who doesn’t like to snack on peanuts? In addition to its tricky reptilian head, the three-inch-long (eight-centimeter-long) plant-hopper also has eyespots on its wings. If both these tricks fail, it can also emit a foul, skunky odor for the ultimate turnoff.

(Triple bonus points if this guy made you think of that They Might Be Giants song about prosthetic foreheads.)

 Skipper Butterfly Pupa

This amazing face is definitely a great fake-out. But it’s not a second face because it’s on a pupa, which doesn’t really have a face—at least not on the outside.

skipper butterfly picture

The skipper butterfly pupa’s fearsome face. Photograph by Daniel Janzen

Biologist and conservationist Daniel Janzen discovered this pupa of Cephise nuspesez, a Costa Rican skipper butterfly. In a 2010 paper on counterfeit eyes, he writes that in this case, there’s no need for a face-making pupa or caterpillar to mimic a specific predator perfectly.

That’s because the false face-maker just has to look alarming enough that a bird won’t take any chances, leaving the insect to live another day and the trait of the false face to be passed on.

The face is supposed to say to the bird: “You are very close to becoming lunch, flee, NOW,” Janzen said in an email. (Also watch a video about a snake with a tail like a head.)

The Happy Face Spider

When you find out they live in Hawaii, it’s easier to understand why the happy face spider is happy.

happy face spider

A happy face spider guards her eggs. Photograph by Darlene A. Murawski, National Geographic

But a happy face is not the only pattern displayed by the happy face spider. The species can come in different patterns—they can look more like your 1970s smiley face with just a line for smile, have a large red grin, have no smile at all, or even appear a little frowny.

The face is thought to keep predators at bay, but one has to wonder … does it work for the usual reasons or do they decide it’s just too cute to eat?

Draculas gigas

It’s easy to see the simian features in Draculas gigas, sometimes called the monkey-face orchid (though that label is applied to several species). But what’s less obvious is why it bothers.

monkey orchid picture

The monkey-face orchid mimics a mushroom. Photograph by Ron Parsons

Fish and insects might evolve eyespots to startle predators, but why would an orchid need to ape an ape?

Answer: It wouldn’t.

Ron McHatton of the American Orchid Society writes in an email that “the face that you see in D. gigas is more of a coincidence than anything else. Orchids are incredible mimics—fragrance as well as appearance—and it’s really all about attracting the pollinator.”

Which, in this case, are fungus gnats and insects that eat them. What the orchid does mimic is something to attract those fungus gnats: Its lower lip is frilled like the underside of a mushroom, and it gives off a musty, mushroom-like odor.

So the flower has evolved a deception, just one we don’t notice—possibly because we can’t stop staring at that monkey mug.

Twinspot Goby

Between its disguise and its numerous aliases, you’d think this fish was in the witness protection program. It goes by the names eyespot goby, crab eye goby, signal goby, or four-eyed goby, but it can always be called Signigobius biocellatus.

twinspot goby picture

A twinspot goby in Papua New Guinea. Photograph by Michele Westmorland, Science Faction/Corbis

This species also keeps you guessing about where its face is. Two large black eyespots on its dorsal fins can make it look like a scarier fish than it is; its true identity is as a peaceful bottom feeder.

Another benefit to those eyes is that you can’t sneak up on a twinspot goby—or at least, the goby makes you think you can’t. Watch this video of a twinspot goby literally making itself new digs: When it backs out of the hole, it looks like a potentially much larger fish coming out face-first. Talk about eyes in the back of your head.

Catdog approves.

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Comments

  1. Liz Langley
    September 16, 2013, 4:22 pm

    @william wesley Glad you brought up the peacock spiders, incredible looking creatures…and lively dancers, to boot. :)

  2. Brenden Brewster
    Las Vegas, NV
    September 10, 2013, 1:12 pm

    HAHA happy face spider thats cool❍

  3. Naved
    India
    September 8, 2013, 2:41 pm

    Could it just be a case of Pareidolia (seeing faces), with which we humans tend to suffer with? Seems especially true for the Monkey-face orchid

  4. william wesley
    san diego
    September 6, 2013, 3:36 pm

    You forgot peacock spiders, the males have a face on the back side that they lift up in larger imitation of the spiders real face to impress females (female spiders often eat males who are too small), for some odd reason no one seems to notice the image is a face. Male Peacocks themselves have eyes on their feathers in imitation of their own eyes for the same purpose. The most impressive case is the Polyphemus moth with hits owl like eyes

  5. Amber Gilbert
    golden vally MN
    September 6, 2013, 3:34 pm

    the happy face spider DOES look TOO CUTE to EAT! :D

  6. Ali Abbas
    Pakistan
    September 6, 2013, 9:59 am

    hahaha… Well said Liz langley! :P

  7. robert
    california
    September 6, 2013, 4:40 am

    The orca is the largest I would venture to guess

  8. Liz Langley
    September 5, 2013, 3:56 pm

    @Uvanga Tulnnaq It does! I hope when it hatches it can realize its dream of becoming a comedian! :)

  9. Uvanga Tuinnaq
    September 5, 2013, 3:23 pm

    The Skipper Butterfly Pupa looks like Dr. Zoidberg but with only 3 tentacles

  10. paige
    gainesville florida
    September 5, 2013, 11:54 am

    National Geographic is lucky to have Liz Langley !! Keep it weird, Lizard !