The sunbittern of Central and South America appears, at first glance, to be a very normal and nondescript water bird. This knee-high, heron-like hunter is cryptically colored to blend in with the leaf litter around the stream beds where it pecks at snails, frogs, and small fish.
But if the camouflage fails, and a predator or rival gets too close, the sunbittern unleashes its full fury:
Suddenly, the bird has disappeared and a bug-eyed beast from hell has materialized in its place. Today, we reconsider an ecological classic: false eyespots.
In Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, the author points out that, even though it looks almost nothing like a face, the arrangement of two dots and a line is universally recognized as a face.
What’s incredible is that the placement of two dots next to each other symbolizes “eyes” for almost all visual animals. And the existence of “eyes” symbolizes existence itself — if there are eyes, there must be an animal behind them. This is why false eyespots have become a universal symbol across the animal kingdom, and a nifty and efficient way of startling your predators, whether you’re a bird, an insect, a reptile, a fish, or a mammal. “Efficient,” I say, because I do not doubt that, were it truly necessary, evolution could perfectly paint a owl’s face on a butterfly’s wings. But why paint the whole owl when the eyes alone will convey the same visual message?
Of course, some eyespots are only the beginning, and the animal’s deception is taken to the point of pitch-perfect imitation. For example, many species of caterpillar carry false eyespots on their posteriors so that, from behind, they’re dead ringers local tree snakes… even to the point of flattening its head into a viper shape, swaying like a cobra, or flicking a false forked tongue. But undoubtedly this evolutionary impersonation contest started with a couple of false eyespots on the tail.
But eyespots aren’t used just to startle the bejeezus out of jumpy predators. Sometimes, they’re used for misdirection. Consider the four-eyed butterfly fish, whose real eyes are obscured by a black stripe and whose false eyes are conspicuous and located at the tail. Predators tend to sneak up from behind, and they find the head by the eyes. By putting its face on its behind, the butterfly fish not only can watch the predator approach, but makes it think it will flee in the opposite direction.
Predators can play this game, too. Next time you’re at the zoo, look for the tiger’s spots. Better known for its stripes, the tiger actually has two eyespots behind its ears. They’re useful when they’re defenseless cubs, as they make them appear larger, but they’re also handy for adults, who can use them to make prey think they’re actually looking in another direction.
Eyespots are also useful for making eyes at the opposite sex… literally. The bittern uses its enormous false eyes to impress mates, but the peacock has it beat by an order of magnitude. In Greek mythology, the hundred eyes of the evil giant Argus are preserved forever in the tail of the peacock. I have always imagined that peahens are extremely vain and want everyone’s eyes on them. The peacock has a way to satisfy that vanity: Look, baby, I brought an entire crowd to come and watch you strut your sweet tailfeathers.
Or perhaps the eye, that symbol of a being, is such a powerful metaphor that the peacock’s many eyes simply seem to make it seem like more than one animal, within one animal. The more eyes, the more selves, the more power. With so many animals bearing false eyespots, I’m somewhat surprised — and kind of disappointed — that humans don’t have them. I imagine them being on our butts, for some reason, so that when we mooned people, they’d get either frightened or aroused. But thinking on it further, we do have an enormous number of ways to change our eyes to convey power, in ways that are just as outrageous as any in the animal kingdom. Eyeshadow and false lashes and sunglasses can be false faces to avoid predation, or can make you seem larger to frighten your monsters. It’s a big bad world out there, and to sometimes you need to stare it down just to survive.