There is a tendency of some animals (including people!) to be "copy-cats" and try to imitate members of their own, and sometimes other, species.

The most obvious example is a parrot copying human speech. Humans also try to copy the speech of their parents when they are little. "ma-ma, da-da"

The less obvious examples, I'm not even really sure are occurring. Like when a gorilla at the zoo assumes the same posture as a person sitting on just the other side of the glass. Like my cat, who tries to chew on bones similar to the two dogs we have.

I'm sure there are more/better examples I'm not aware of.

What is it that creates this behavior? Is it something that was learned, or is it some natural tendency? Is there such a thing as behaviors that are "encoded in the dna"?

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    $\begingroup$ Disagree with "too broad" closing but wouldn't this question be better suited for cogsci.stackexchange.com? (i.e. off-topic here). $\endgroup$ – ddiez Dec 17 '14 at 3:25
  • $\begingroup$ I think this question is perfectly on topic here. Cognitive Sciences focuses much more on the human aspects. $\endgroup$ – AliceD Jan 16 '15 at 11:20

Mimicry, in biology, phenomenon characterized by the superficial resemblance of two or more organisms that are not closely related taxonomically. This resemblance confers an advantage—such as protection from predation—upon one or both organisms through some form of “information flow” that passes between the organisms and the animate agent of selection.

This link describes different types of animal mimicry

The two step mechanism of mimicry evolution states that,

1) Mutations at genes of major effect first allow a phenotypic leap achieving an approximate resemblance to a particular model.

2) Once these mutations have increased in the population, resemblance can be enhanced through the gradual selection of epistatic modifiers.

Considering the case of butterflies, the working of two step mechanism evolved through different types of natural selection process. Experiments show that birds associate certain patterns in the butterfly wings to identify the specie and generalize those features, but a small deviation from the exact pattern is neglected. The increased resemblance is advantageous to species having imperfect mimics. So the species which displays/perform imperfect mimics can some how fall under the list of rejection and manages to survive, thereby passing genes to next generation.

"Largesse of the Genome", an idea put forward by J.R.G.Turner states that, it is believed that the modification of a trait can be achieved by so many different genes that some of them will inevitably happen to be linked.Amoung the many possible combinations of the loci, selection could simply sieve out the ones that involve linked genes.

Encyclopedia of Insects by Vincent H. Resh, Ring T. Cardé

Although the exact mechanisms of mimicry is still a questionable area, experiments are giving hopes regarding the two step mechanism and more over natural selection is the predominant factor which makes a mimicry successful.

This link describes insect mimicry and two step mechanism in detail.


A Dictionary of Birds

Encyclopedia of Evolution

Rapidly Evolving Genes and Genetic Systems

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    $\begingroup$ I think the question is about imitation, not mimicry. $\endgroup$ – augurar Dec 21 '14 at 9:08
  • $\begingroup$ I did have imitation more in mind when I wrote the question, I hadn't really thought about mimicry like stated here. $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Dec 22 '14 at 15:12

My intuition would be that this has to do with the neuroscience of social behavior. Many animals, especially those that live and travel in groups (eg. humans), have a great deal of brain "wiring" dedicated to engaging in social behavior with other members of their group. This is an advantage from an evolutionary perspective, since it helps with cooperation, exchange of information, establishment of social hierarchy, etc., which confers survival advantages. In the absence of other members of their group (for example, in captivity), there are documented cases of animals imitating human behavior, which is thought to be a carry-over of the social bonding behaviors they typically engage in.

There was a NYTimes article that mentioned this phenomenon in relation to parrots imitating human speech, which came to mind when I saw your question (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/31/magazine/what-does-a-parrot-know-about-ptsd.html )--not a very scientific source, I know!

  • $\begingroup$ This is just an opinionated guess not an answer, and makes little effort to directly answer the question. $\endgroup$ – rg255 Apr 16 '16 at 6:15

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