Wild About Deception and Mimicry

A number of years ago, I had a dog who lied. If we refused to play with her, she would sit by the door, asking to go outside. As soon as we got up to open the door, she would race for her toy, certain that she had tricked us into restarting the game. 

Science confirms that dogs will deceive us if it’s to their advantage. When asked to guide two different handlers to a hidden reward—with one handler who shared their treats and one who stole them for themselves—dogs would “lie” to the second handler as a means of preserving the treats for themselves. They may be our best friends, but that doesn’t mean they’re always being honest with us.

A brown and white dog with a mouthful of sticks, eager to play.
Dog photo by rbennett661, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dogs are not the only non-human animals to use deception for their benefit. Drongos, a species of bird that lives near meerkat colonies in Africa, provides a valuable service by warning the meerkats when predators are nearby. Except that some of the time, the warnings are fake, allowing the birds to steal the dinner that the meerkats abandon in their dash for safety. Drongos will even take their deceptive mimicry one step further. If their own warning call doesn’t create the desired results, they will mimic the meerkats’ own distress calls to up the ante.

A drongo, a black songbird with a long forked tail sits on a tree branch.
Drongos use mimicry to deceive meerkats. Photo by Swamy HKM, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Other birds seek to deceive predators directly. Numerous species will fake an injured wing in order to draw predators away from nests or their young. Originally, this behaviour was thought to be the province of shorebirds, but evidence now shows that nearly 300 different species may adopt this tactic. 

Not all forms of deception are intentional. Many species of plants and animals practice functional deception, where camouflage or mimicry is part of their appearance. In some cases, camouflage helps animals escape predators, or lets predators sneak up on their prey. Whether it’s the orchid mantis cleverly blending in with its namesake flowers or a snow leopard disappearing into a rock fall as it sneaks up on a herd of ibex, camouflage can be critical in an eat or be eaten world. 

A white coloured mantis perches onto of a purple and white orchid flower. The mantis has a purple streaked tail that matches the coloration of the flower.
Orchid mantis, photo by I, Luc Viatour, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Other types of camouflage are more specific. Many species of orchids have evolved to use sexual deception, tricking insects into pollinating their flowers with the false promise of sexual gratification. Trickery is everywhere in the natural world if you look for it. 

Obviously, orchids are not using intentional thought to trick insects into pollinating their flowers; it’s a function of evolution that has developed over thousands of years. For those species that are using intentional deception, the question for scientists is whether the drongo, or even my dog, are acting deliberately—in other words, do they understand that the target of their lies thinks differently than they do? Or, are they simply repeating a chance behaviour that gained them good results in the past?

Dogs are particularly interesting to consider. They have been living as our companions for over 30,000 years, longer than any other domesticated species and studies show that even very young puppies are able to understand what humans want. If they understand us so instinctively, can they understand us well enough to lie?

A brown and white dog sleeps on the floor. A tennis ball is visible by its front feet.
Photo by 稻糕 均木, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Until we can communicate directly with animals, we may never know for sure. Some scientists argue that the evidence shows that some animals practice deliberate deceit, while others say it is our desire as humans to connect with other species that leads us to this interpretation. 

Either way, the end result is the same. Like the meerkat that drops a free meal for the drongo, I get up to open the door for the dog every time.