When ecology meets horror, the result can be totally awesome.

And what had manifested? What do I believe manifested? Think of it as a thorn, perhaps, a long, thick thorn so large it is buried deep in the side of the world. Injecting itself into the world. Emanating from this giant thorn is an endless, perhaps automatic, need to assimilate and to mimic…. It creates out of our ecosystem a new world, whose processes and aims are utterly alien—one that works through supreme acts of mirroring, and by remaining hidden in so many other ways, all without surrendering the foundations of its otherness as it becomes what it encounters. - Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

Caution: this post contains spoilers

In Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation, a novel that might be described as science fiction, science fantasy or science horror, in a world that may or may not be our own, an aberration has seeped into the land. The afflicted region, known as Area X, is under the control of a mysterious government agency called the Southern Reach. Only highly trained personnel on scientific expeditions may enter. Annihilation follows a nameless biologist who is sent into Area X on one such mission. Through the trials she endures and horrors she witnesses, we begin to unravel the mysteries of a seemingly pristine landscape that might have been plucked right out of the Florida everglades.

From her first moments in Area X, the biologist can't shake the feeling the entire landscape is infused with deception. Indeed, among most who enter Area X, there is a pervasive feeling that "things are not as they seem": a feeling of being watched, tricked. In time, most who visit this place become paranoid, then violent. As the story progresses, it becomes clear this sense of uncanny is more than just an idle feeling. Something is indeed happening to this landscape; something is taking the familiar sites and sounds of nature and transmuting them into­­- what?

The biologist eventually forms a hypothesis. Her theory stems from what is perhaps most supernatural element of the landscape: a mysterious "tower" that tunnels down, perhaps endlessly, into the earth. If that in itself isn't unsettling enough, the walls of the tower are covered in words written in living fungus; words forming sentences that read like passages from the Bible. While exploring the tower, the biologist accidentally inhales fungal spores from some of these words. Following her "exposure", she starts seeing the world differently, as if a "veil has been lifted". She grows convinced that the tower, itself bearing uncanny resemblance to a nearby lighthouse, is alive, and practicing some sort of elaborate mimicry:

"as we climbed back up [the Tower] I had a moment of vertigo despite being in such an enclosed space, a kind of panic for a moment, in which the walls suddenly had a fleshy aspect to them, as if we traveled inside of the gullet of a beast."

While it might be easy to write off VanderMeer's strange world as paranormal, more befitting the ranks of fantasy or horror than science fiction, his descriptions of the life in this transitional landscape reveal a deep appreciation for ecology. By the end of the book, it was clear to me the tower can be seen as an exploration of biological mimicry, speculation grounded in, but beyond the present limits of our ecological principals.

Before we get too deeply into the nature of VanderMeer's speculation, a little biology refresher is probably in order. Mimicry, the act of pretending to be something else, is a well-documented ecological strategy, practiced across many branches of the tree of life. Mimicry takes many forms. Organisms can mimic other organisms, or inanimate features of their environment. They can mimic in appearance, behavior, sound, scent or location. In ecology, creatures that practice deception are called mimics and those they impersonate are models.

When ecology meets horror, the result can be totally awesome.

Poison frog or mimic? You're not the only one who can't tell.

In nature, to deceive has many potential advantages. The textbook example is avoidance. Insects that mimic sticks and frogs that mimic leaves are less likely to be spotted and eaten by birds. It's also common practice to mimic something more dangerous- the mimic poison frog and the viceroy butterfly are both easily mistaken for their deadly counterparts, and thus avoided.

Other mimics have the opposite purpose in mind: luring prey. The flower mantis comes in many startlingly beautiful varieties, all intended to allure unsuspecting bugs onto their not-quite petals.

Still others have a more subtle motive. The European cuckoo is famous for visiting the nests of other birds, punting out one of the eggs and replacing it with her own. When the cuckoo egg hatches, a naïve surrogate mother, believing the cuckoo chick to be hers, immediately starts mothering it. By relinquishing her child-rearing responsibilities, the cuckoo mother can spend her energy searching for more food and laying more eggs. This unusual type of mimicry is known as brood parasitism.

When ecology meets horror, the result can be totally awesome.

Plants have also evolved elaborate deception strategies aimed at conserving energy. Orchids are famous for disguising themselves as female spiders or bees to attract gullible males. The orchid transfers pollen to the male while he attempts to copulate with it. This allows orchids to spread their pollen, while cheating would-be pollinators out of a reward- sex or nectar.

I've given just a few examples here, but you can probably see that the landscape of mimics, models and motives is incredibly diverse. Across this diversity, there are a few general rules. One rule that seems to always apply: there must be an adaptive advantage to deception. This makes intuitive sense. If the disguise is too easy to see through, there's no point in wearing it, right? Another rule that usually applies: most mimics have only one model.

Compared with this (simplified) outline of mimicry as we know it, the situation in Area X is extraordinarily complicated. Whatever is practicing mimicry here seems capable of taking on the appearance of not one, but any aspect of the landscape it chooses. Not an organism-mimic, not a thing-mimic, but an eco-mimic.

Surely this remarkable ability has no precedent in nature? Well, not quite. They are rare, but there are a few astounding examples of multi-species mimicry. My personal favorite is Thaumoctopus mimicus, the mimic octopus. Using specialized pigment sacs called chromatophores, this amazing sea creature is able to blend into its landscape; taking on upwards of two dozen different forms, from lion fishes to sea snakes to corals and rocks.

But there are other, less flashy examples of multispecies mimicry. In fact, there's a whole group of organisms, a group whose members fashion their entire lives around eluding detection. I'm talking about parasites.

Here's an intriguing case. The fungus Monilinia vaccinii-corymbosi, better known as the causal agent of mummy berry disease, is a pathogen that infects blueberry leaves, causing them to secrete sugary substances that attract bees. The sugar itself is a tasty attraction, but it makes the leaves UV-reflective, much like blueberry flowers. Basically, the fungus tricks bees into thinking they're landing on a flower. The harmlessly-deceived bees end up transferring the fungus to actual blueberry flowers, where it invades the plant's ovaries, producing mummified, inedible berries. Once in the flowers, the fungus transfers itself to other pollinators and from them to other blueberry plants. This is a highly unusual case of mimicry in which the fungus benefits, but acts through another agent- the blueberry leaves- to carry out deception. It's also one of the only documented instances of mimicry in Kingdom Fungi.

The mummy berry fungus might be particularly relevant to our understanding of Area X. Fungi at least part of what infuses the tower with its strange, living quality. But it's clear the entirety of what is happening in Area X may be beyond the capacity of human senses to understand. As the biologist puts it:

It might be beyond the limits of my senses to capture— or my science or my intellect— but I still believed I was in the presence of some kind of living creature, one that practiced mimicry using my own thoughts. For even then, I believed that it might be pulling these different impressions of itself from my mind and projecting them back at me, as a form of camouflage.

Could whatever has infected Area X be some sort of highly evolved, elaborately hidden parasite, one that, like the mummy berry fungus, works through other agents to deceive? It's certainly possible. But we still haven't touched the biggest question in all of this: why would an organism hide itself throughout an ecosystem, mimicking everything from dolphins to buildings to people? What selective force could drive the evolution of such elaborate mimicry?

To me this question, at least superficially, has a clear answer: because an ecosystem is just such a damn good mask. A parasite that mimics a single organism may be easily spotted and weeded out, particularly by an intelligent enemy. But how can something be eradicated if it is everywhere? If it can take on any shape, mimic any part of the landscape? How to even identify a point of attack?

I've hinted at another aspect of Area X's mysterious ecology that I think might be important. Whatever pervades this landscape seems well-adapted to overcoming, even assimilating, an intelligent enemy. Could this foe be us? By disguising itself as a forest, a swamp, a glade, this being transforms the landscape into something intriguing, different, but only in subtle ways detectable by an organism capable of abstraction, of careful scientific observation… Perhaps the infused strangeness of Area X serves to bait an intelligent prey.

Looking to nature, we again find examples to draw on. Parasites routinely use mimicry to bait their hosts. In a rather horrific case, the tropical nematode Myrmeconema neotropicum is ingested by the canopy ant Cephalotes atratus. The nematode grows in the ant's belly, turning its host's abdomen bright red to make it appear like a juicy, ripe berry. The nematode also induces behavioral changes- ants carrying the parasite hold their gaster (the bulbous hindmost region of the ant's abdomen) aloft. Overall this gives the ant the appearance of a delicious berry just begging to be plucked by a hungry bird.

As the biologist discovers, many human expeditions have traveled into Area X in the past- far more than she was told of during her training. Few if any humans return, and those who do are a shell of their former selves. Infected by the landscape. Changed. All die within a short while of re-entering human society. It's possible these humans have all succumbed to whatever organism- parasite or otherwise- drew them into Area X. Baited and then infected, within a short while most who enter are unable to leave Area X. Most don't even want to. The biologist, herself deciding to remain in Area X by the end of the book, comes to question whether, were this phenomenon to spread across the planet, it would be a bad thing:

"The terrible thing, the thought I cannot dislodge after all I have seen, is that I can no longer say with conviction that this is a bad thing. Not when looking at the pristine nature of Area X and then the world beyond, which we have altered so much. "

Perhaps Area X is nature's response to a human speices that has lost touch with the natural world. Throughout Annihilation, VanderMeer makes overt and subtle allusions to our environmental negligence. As the biologist explains, human expeditions into Area X have all failed in the same way. They have failed due to a lack of imagination. "Feed Area X but do not antagonize it, and perhaps someone will, through luck or mere repetition, hit upon some explanation, some solution, before the world becomes Area X." It's easy to see this as a direct analogy for our failed climate policies, our unwillingness as a species to confront our environmental problems head-on and make the dramatic changes necessary to remediate them.

Perhaps then, the truth of Area X is a manifestation of nature itself, a phenomenon that transcends any individual organism. Are humans an aberrant and dangerous species, one that, for the sake of the world, needs to be re-integrated into the natural order? Is Area X our bait?

When ecology meets horror, the result can be totally awesome.

Now grown and consumed internationally, rye was originally a mimetic weed of wheat

I'll leave you with one last curiosity to ponder from natural world. In recent years, agricultural intensification has caused a new type of mimicry to appear. Vavilovian mimicry describes weeds that come to resmble crop plants. Farmers can accidentally spread a good Vavilovian mimic across the world. If we project forward from this sort of human-induced mimicry, why can't we end up with an organism that practices guerilla warfare to fight back against our wanton destruction of life and habitat?

I've speculated a lot as to VanderMeer's intentions with his novel. Keep in mind this is all really my speculation- my biologist's reading of what could be going on in Area X. But perhaps the riddle of Area X isn't a mimic at all. Perhaps it's a message. Perhaps, in order to survive as a species, we need to start mimicking nature. Perhaps Annihilation, a word embedded in the minds of anyone who enters Area X, a hypnotic suggestion that compels immediate self-destruction, is more broadly suggestive of what we face if we don't.

Photo credits: FSG, Reptipedia, Wikimedia commons, Wikimedia Commons

Madeleine Stone is author of this blog and The Lonely Spore. Follow her on Twitter.