APRIL 8, 2019
In the first global test of the idea, scientists have found evidence that some woodpeckers can evolve to look like another species of woodpecker in the same neighborhood. The researchers say that this "plumage mimicry" isn't a fluke—it happens among pairs of distantly related woodpeckers all over the world. The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, was conducted by researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, SUNY Buffalo State, the University of British Columbia, and Manchester University.
"Habitat, climate, and genetics play a huge role in the way feather color and pattern develop," explains lead author Eliot Miller at the Cornell Lab. "Species in similar environments can look similar to one another. But in some cases, there's another factor influencing the remarkable resemblance between two woodpecker species and that's mimicry. It's the same phenomenon found in some butterflies which have evolved markings that make them look like a different bad-tasting or toxic species in order to ward off predators."
Study authors combined data on feather color, DNA sequences, eBird reports, and NASA satellite measures of vegetation for all 230 of the world's woodpecker species. It became clear, Miller says, that there have been repeated cases of distantly-related woodpeckers coming to closely resemble each other when they live in the same region of the globe.