Butterfly display scares off even chickens

Gallus Gallus Domesticus. Photo Credits: Susulyka

Peacock butterflies, an insect of about two inches across, have developed mechanisms to scare of potential predators much bigger than themselves. In a recent study, scientists tested the eyespot display of this butterfly against the gallus gallus domesticus, domestic chicken, for aversion or nonchalance.

Peacock butterfly courtesy of Øistein Haugsten Holen

Peacock butterflies have the eyespots on their wings, which mimic a larger animal’s eyes, hidden while resting, but flick them open when disturbed. This experiment used butterflies with their eyespots either visible (BV) or painted (BP) over to test the response of a large bird species. Each test consisted of a room with one chicken and one butterfly. The chicken would unknowingly startle the butterfly when pecking for food, and the resulting responses were noted.


– Results showed that 30/40 birds were scared away from the butterfly when wings were flicked open regardless of whether eyepots were painted over or visible (P=0.0022).
– Birds confronted with BV took longer to return to the food area, median of 217 seconds, vs. birds confronted with BP, median of 7 seconds, (P=0.014)
– Birds confronted with BV were more likely to utter predator alarm call, 13/23 birds, vs. birds confronted with BP, 1/17 birds, (P=0.00094).

The behaviors seen from the domestic fowls were textbook anti-predator responses for the species. As a prime example of batesian mimicry, this showed that the eyespots of the peacock butterfly were perceived as belonging to a potential predator by butterfly predators.

Martin Olofsson, Hanne Løvlie, Jessika Tibblin, Sven Jakobsson, Christer Wiklund. Eyespot display in the peacock butterfly triggers antipredator behaviors in naïve adult fowl. Behavioral Ecology.


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