I became interested in mimicry over 25 years ago when I was editing natural history encyclopedias.There was just something uncanny about the idea of one creature impersonating another, especially when it was an animal trying to look like a plant. There’s a bug, Ityraea, that collects on twigs en masse and looks like a convincing flower spike until they all get up and drop off the twig; the leafy sea dragon has tattered appendages to its fins that exactly mimic the sea-weed it lives among; the Kallima butterfly has gorgeously rich purple and organ wings: when they’re open, that is; closed the underside is dead-leaf brown, complete with mouldy bits and holes and it even mimics the leaf stalk.
But I didn’t want the book (now Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage) to be simply a catalogue of these stupendous creatures, one after another. The bible of the subject was Hugh Cott’s Adaptive Coloration in Animals and I knew that Cott had served as a camouflage officer in World War II, as had some painters. I wanted to see how camouflage and mimicry played out in human affairs as well as nature. Long before Velcro, camouflage was the first great bio-inspired technique. This wartime research took me to the National Archives at Kew and the Imperial War Museum, where I spent many happy hours.
The Desert War in North Africa in World War II began to fascinate me. Seeing reports in the archives, written on old typewriters in the desert, the files now slowly rotting in the archives was deeply thrilling. The Imperial War Museum has many accounts lodged by ordinary serving forces personnel and I combed these for accounts of the camouflage operation in North Africa. This of course was totally needle-in-haystack but I struck lucky.
Reading the file of Sergeant Bob Thwaites, the camouflage school in the desert suddenly loomed into view. Thwaites had a very pithy take on forces life:
Our first acquaintance with our instructor was not encouraging. We had been told he was one of Britain’s most eminent naturalists and appeared to have been dragged protesting from a twitcher’s hide, bundled into a captain’s uniform made by a blind tailor and posted to Maadi.
This was vivid writing and, even better, this had to be my man, Hugh Cott, he was writing about:
He was middle-aged, balding and with a military bearing suggesting that he could well have thought Sandhurst to be a seaside resort.
But, according to Thwaites, Cott won them over with an eye-opening list of camouflage tricks and insights including how to get your bearings from churches, why cowboy jackets are fringed and how many animals don’t just look like something else, they behave like it: such as the bittern which if disturbed sways like the reeds it is trying to emulate. For Thwaites it was an exercise in lateral thinking; for me it was manna from heaven.
The patterns we make as we criss-cross each other’s lives are infinite and most of them are hidden. Go seek and you will find treasure.