Mother Nature has created some amazing art. The variety of lines, spots and colors found in the animal kingdom is something to behold. Many of these characteristics combine to create a display that can be breathtakingly beautiful, but when it comes to wildlife the coat, skin or plumage serves as more than just eye candy. Sometimes a pattern full of shapes and colors helps attract a mate (peacocks, anyone?). In many cases it can help us identify individuals, like a fingerprint. But so often it’s a useful survival tool, providing camouflage or mimicry that helps a creature capture prey… or avoid becoming someone else’s meal. Here are some of the interesting patterns I’ve encountered over the years.
I always have fun studying giraffes. Their splotchy patterns don’t exactly provide great camouflage (this towering beast is pretty conspicuous, even at a young age), but they can make for interesting photo subjects… or backgrounds. Oxpeckers frequently perch on giraffe necks and backs, and can add a nice touch to break up the pattern of the fur.
The other African animal famous for its fur pattern is the zebra. It’s another creature that can provide some interesting abstract photo opportunities at close range.
In the case of the zebra, its stripes are thought to serve a greater purpose. When these animals gather together in herds, the stripes help them blend together, sometimes making it more difficult for predators to pick out individuals.
Other animals also use patterns to camouflage themselves, blending into their environment to the point where they’re virtually invisible even in plain sight. The Common pauraque is a nocturnal bird that sleeps on the ground during the day. Its plumage helps it blend into the leaf litter on the rainforest floor perfectly. I’ve seen lots of pauraques and nightjars at night… this one photographed on my recent Costa Rica trip is the first I’ve ever seen during the day.
Some patterns offer protection without hiding an animal. Instead, they help the critter transform into something else. Mimicry is a common strategy in Mother Nature. Some species have bodies or appendages that have evolved to emulate another object (insects that look like sticks or leaves are a common sight in the jungle). Some species end up looking like completely different animals thanks to their spotting and coloration. There’s a caterpillar whose hind end looks like the head and face of a snake. And then there’s the owl butterfly, whose large wing spot looks like the eye of a large bird that would intimidate many potential predators.
Predators also use camouflage to their advantage, both to catch prey and to avoid falling victim to larger predators. About 100 yards from where I photographed the Pauraque, I photographed this fer-de-lance many years ago. Its scaly patterns allow it to blend into the forest floor. Campers were having their breakfast 5 meters away from this venomous snake and didn’t even know it was there!
If you haven’t noticed already, there are a lot of cool wildlife patterns in the tropical rainforest. Mammals also use patterns to their advantage. The ocelot’s spotted coat helps it blend into the dappled light peeking through the rainforest canopy. Other spotted cats like leopards and jaguars also have this advantage, while the vertical stripes of Asia’s tigers can serve the same purpose in grassland habitats.
Spots and lines can even help much larger animals disappear. It’s incredible how quickly a whale shark can give you the slip underwater, as the spotted skin patterns help break up its shape and make it harder to keep track of an animal the size of a school bus.
These markings help animals survive, but they also help scientists and trackers keeping an eye on individuals for research or conservation purposes. The same spots that help disguise a leopard in the African bush can also be used to identify individual cats. The spot patterns around the face and eyebrows have been used for reporting locations on leopards, tigers and other felines.
Other critters that sport unique markings used in identification include endangered species like the African wild dog and South America’s giant river otter. In the case of the otters, it’s the unique neck pattern that stands out.
Whale tracking has become an important part of conservation efforts. The Pacific humpback whale population has been rebounding quite well in recent decades, and efforts to monitor populations and individuals are ongoing. Individual humpbacks each possess a unique pattern that helps researchers identify them. Of all places, it’s found on their tail! Whale flukes have different shapes, scarring, coloration and even barnacle distribution that makes them unique. This works out great for making IDs, since whales inevitably dive and will show you their tail nearly every time they head for the depths.
It’s pretty amazing how these characteristics can vary in different species and serve different purposes. Undoubtedly, patterns play roles in the animal kingdom that affect behavior and socialization in ways we haven’t even discovered yet. Next time you’re in the field, check out a subject’s colors, stripes, spots and other features that may combine into an interesting pattern, and see if you can figure out what role they may play in that animal’s life.
Update: In 2020 I published an educational video about animal camouflage as part of my “Learning About Wildlife” series. Check it out here.