Fish proves a wolf in sheep’s clothing

A small Australian fish has shown itself to be a real wolf in sheep’s clothing by changing colour to mimic its neighbours.

The dottyback takes on the appearance of other fish so it can sneak up and eat their young, scientists have discovered. While mimicry is common in nature and practised by animals ranging from cuckoos to butterflies, this master of disguise takes it to a new level.

The coral reef fish is able to change colour in different ways to match whatever species it is hunting. Different types of damselfish are one of its favourite targets.

Dr William Feeney, from Cambridge University’s Department of Zoology, who co-led the study, said: “By changing colour to imitate local damselfish communities, dottybacks are able to overcome the predator avoidance behaviour in the juvenile fish they hunt.

“The dottyback behaviour is comparable to the ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ scenario from Aesop’s Fables, where distinguishing the predator from the harmless ‘flock’ becomes increasingly difficult when they look alike — allowing the dottyback to creep up on unsuspecting juvenile damselfish.”

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