Tuesday 27 April 2010

Pseudaposematic Bottoms

An old lady once complained to me about the plague of rabbits in her garden. They were digging things up and eating things and of course they breed like...


And she was utterly stuck. It is well known that everything breeds like rabbits, but what do rabbits breed like? Everything, I suppose. I said, "Bunnies?" and the synonym appeared to console her. "Bunnies," she said decisively and continued.

That was years ago, but the other day in Regents Park I was with a friend watching ducks dabbling. A mallard resurfaced and I pointed and said "You know the water comes off that duck's back like water off a duck's back." These little things keep me afloat. The duck dived again and, gazing at its disappearing bottom, I was reminded of the word pseudaposematic.

Have you ever wondered why mallards have those little squares of blue on their sides? No? Didn't think so. They are not there for ornamentation for the mallard is not a vain creature.

Those speculum markings are there so that if you creep up on a mallard from behind you see a big, angry fish staring at you:

This is the reason that mallards are almost never the victims of sexual abuse*; their bottoms look like angry fish. The mallard protects its bottom by disguising it as something that would make you run away. There ought to be an easier way of saying that, there ought to be one baroque word meaning disguised as something to make you go away: and there is. The mallard, dear reader, has a pseudaposematic arse.

Pseud because it's fraudulent, apo because that's Greek for away (like an apostle who is sent away), and sematic because it's a sign (like semaphore). There's a lot of it about in nature. You have, as like as not, run away from a wasp that is actually a yellow and black striped fly (the difference is something to do with whether the wings are crossed). There are venomless snakes in the bright colours of their poisonous cousins. There are moths with eyes.

But the word could equally be used for the sort of chap who has his head shaved in order to look tough, or the householder I once met who had an empty burglar alarm thingummyjig on the front of his house, or to a scarecrow.

And if you spend enough money at a tattoo parlour, you too, dear reader, can even have a pseudaposematic arse.

The female polyphemus moth looking morose

*Although I learnt today that if you're slithering around in the undergrowth with a camera and a passer-by asks you what you're doing, don't reply "I'm trying to look at a duck's bottom."

P.S. It can also be called Batesian mimicry.

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