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Learning About Wildlife: Camouflage

I’ve published the third installment in my “Learning About Wildlife” video series. This edition discusses the art of camouflage, and the animals that employ it to survive in the wild.

This ended up being the longest educational video I’ve done so far, longer than I’d hoped to be honest, but there are a lot of cool examples of species that use colors, patterns, shapes and other techniques to hide from predators or prey. In conjunction with the release of this video, I am posting the video transcript and some photos below, in case you’d prefer to read rather than watch (or if you want something to refer back to quickly). Also, there are a lot of examples of macro photography used in this video, but I’m not all that good of a macro shooter, so at the bottom of this page I’ve included links to a few other photographers who do some excellent macro work and can show you some really fine examples of camouflaged animals in their portfolios.


Video Transcript:

Hi everyone, and welcome to the latest installment of Learning About Wildlife. I’m going to share some animals with you that are good at hiding… species that use camouflage and mimicry to their advantage while trying to survive in the wild.

The world is full of many colorful animals, species that are known for their beauty and bright colors. They attract a lot of attention, which is sort of the point, I suppose.

Some animals use bright colors as warning signals. We use red, yellow, and orange to denote danger or caution in our own signs and markers, don’t we? It’s the same with wildlife. Many species of snakes, frogs, or insects show off bright warning colors so that predators won’t eat them. They might be poisonous, like the aptly-named poison dart frog, or maybe they sting, like a fuzzy caterpillar.

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog

The strawberry poison dart frog gives predators advanced warning that it may not be good to eat.

In some cases, they simply have a nasty bite, like a venomous snake. Some species that aren’t actually poisonous or venomous will show off bright coloration to trick other animals into thinking they’re dangerous!

Other creatures are simply showoffs. They’re beautiful and they know it! This is especially true among birds. A lot of male birds possess colorful plumage specifically because they need to attract a mate. They’ll flash their pretty colors, often while dancing, jumping, ducking, and bobbing around. Any little spot of color could seal the deal.

But we’re not here to talk about those loud, outgoing types. I want to talk about the shy critters, animals that are doing their best to stay hidden.

Pacific Screech Owl

Pacific Screech Owl, Costa Rica

Many species have developed interesting and unique ways to survive specifically by not being seen, but why? It usually comes down to two reasons: to eat, or to avoid being eaten.

A lot of predators have to be sneaky to get close enough to their prey. Big cats are accomplished hunters, but most of them need to get close to their intended target without being seen before they can pounce. Sure, being quiet and coordinated helps, but it also helps when your fur blends in with your surroundings.

Take the puma, also known as the cougar or mountain lion. Down in the southern end of South America, these cats have lighter beige or gray fur that blends in well with the surrounding landscape. Do you see the cat sneaking up on this guanaco?

Puma stalking guanaco

A puma tries to hide from a guanaco. It was only discovered when it crept forward toward another guanaco and forgot about this one. If you can’t find the cat, follow the guanaco’s gaze downward… it’s about a quarter of the way up from the bottom of the frame.

Farther north in tropical rainforests, the pumas are actually a darker, richer brown color. It’s amazing how well they blend in with the fallen brown leaves on the jungle floor.

Some predators don’t stalk and sneak up on prey. They have to wait for it to get close. The patterns on the backs of some venomous snakes allow them to hide in plain sight until something edible comes wandering by.

Among individuals in the same species, some color variations are thought to help more than others. The spirit bear is a rare type of black bear… one in every ten bears in this subspecies are born with white fur. It’s thought that the white-furred bears have more success catching salmon than the black-furred bears, because their lighter color blends in better with the bright sky, so fish can’t see them as well.

Spirit bear catching salmon

The white spirit bear may be more successful than its black brethren at catching fish because it blends in with the bright sky above.

Of course, there are probably even more examples of animals that need to hide so they don’t become prey. Being able to blend into your surroundings gives you a greater chance of avoiding detection and getting eaten!

When we talk about animals hiding in the wild like this, we’re talking about camouflage, which takes several forms. The most common, perhaps, is the use of color to blend in with the environment. Many small animals hang out near plants of similar colors to avoid predators, but even hunters like the Great Gray Owl can be very tough pick out from the grayish tree trunks they often like to perch on.

Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owls are large, but sometimes difficult to spot when they’re perched near a tree trunk.

Patterns help certain animals blend in. Another much smaller owl, the Northern Pygmy owl, has spots on its feathers that look remarkably similar to the pattern on the tree branches it uses as a perch.

Spots and stripes are really good for camouflage, since they help break up shapes. Big predators like leopards, jaguars, and tigers blend into tall grass or the mixed light and shadows of a forest thanks to their fur patterns.

These patterns help animals hide from hunters just as effectively. Whale sharks are really big fish, but even they may need to hide from large marine predators. The spotted pattern on a whale shark’s back helps it become lost in ocean waters… it’s amazing how difficult is can be to track such a large animal.

Whale shark

A whale shark can disappear into the murk quite quickly thanks in part to its spots.

A zebra’s coat may seem loud and bold… black and white stands out against a brownish background. But if you put a bunch of them together in a herd, the animals start to blend together… it’s suddenly difficult for a predator to figure out where one animal begins and the next one ends, so it’s that much harder to pick out a meal.

Young mammals often sport spotted coats, which also help their disguise. This is common in young ungulates like deer or elk, but even the pumas we mentioned are spotted at a young age. Camouflage helps protect young, vulnerable creatures. This is found in other types of animals. The Sally Lightfoot crab is bold and beautiful as an adult, but as a vulnerable youngster its colors are muted, so it can blend in with the dark lava rocks it calls home.

Some animals display forms of “countershading,” in which their body is split between light and dark tones. This usually means the top side of the animal is dark, while the bottom half is lighter. Remember the spirit bear, which blends in with the bright sky while hunting salmon? It’s the same concept. An animal such as a penguin will be lighter on its belly, so it blends in against the lighter water and sky above it, but darker on its back, so that it blends in with darker, deeper water or the ocean floor below. Even huge animals like humpback whales often have some sort of countershading!

Humpback Whale Calf

There are some species of animals which can’t help but stand out at times. So they’ve learned how to hide the bright colors that give them away. A great example is the morpho butterfly, which flashes an amazing metallic blue color when it’s flapping around. But if it lands somewhere it becomes much more vulnerable, so the morpho immediately closes its wings. Suddenly, it’s much harder to spot against the brown tree trunks and forest floor.

A few animals can even change colors to blend in. Some are able to do this quickly, like the octopus, or the chameleon. Others change colors seasonally. Fur color turns white for some rabbits and hares in winter (this could be a problem if the snow disappears too soon!), and the same goes for weasels. Mostly brownish in warmer months, this small predator turns stark white in winter. That may help it hunt, but more importantly, it helps it hide from even larger predators!

Of course, none of these camouflaged outfits matter if an animal can’t find a suitable habitat to blend into. It’s pretty remarkable how well these creatures can match their environment. Nightjars and Pauraques, nocturnal bug-eating birds, will roost right on the forest floor during the day, but their camouflage is so good they’re rarely spotted. This nightjar found the perfect rooftop to blend into!

Blackish Nightjar

A Blackish Nightjar blends in quite well with roof tiles.

Pikas are commonly found in boulder fields and rock piles… unless they start scampering around, it’s quite difficult finding these furry little critters in a mixed canvas of grays and browns.

As if all of these strategies aren’t enough, some animals take things to even further extremes. The Sandhill Crane is known to “paint” mud onto its feathers, so as to better blend into the brownish tones found in its nesting habitat.

There’s an even better form of imitation going on, however: Mimicry. This is something we often see in the bug world. Grasshoppers and katydids come in various shapes and colors, but they often look like some variation of a leaf. This one has taken things one step further, flaunting a mossy appearance to go with its leaf shape.

Katydid

Wonderful mimicry and camouflage is on display in the form of this katydid, right down to the moss!

Stick insects are another mimic frequently found in the rainforest. They move pretty slowly so they don’t give themselves away to predators, and they come in a variety of colors and sizes.

One of my favorite mimics seen recently was this Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar. It just sits on a leaf and looks like bird poop!

Swallowtail caterpillar

The caterpillar form of a swallowtail butterfly in Costa Rica just looks like guano on a leaf.

Another caterpillar is much brighter—yes, because it’s poisonous—but it’s got a cool adaptation not seen on most other caterpillar species. There’s actually a kind of wasp that goes around laying eggs on other bugs. Without getting too graphic, this eventually kills those hosts… so this caterpillar grows little tufts of hair that imitate the look of those wasp eggs… just so the wasp will leave it alone!

Shag-carpet Caterpillar

The Shag-carpet Caterpillar’s white hairs imitate wasp eggs… specifically to prevent a wasp from laying eggs on it (and thus, handing it a death sentence).

Some mimics don’t pretend to be plants. Instead, they imitate other animals. The owl butterfly is mostly brown, but those big bright circles definitely stand out. That’s okay, because they look like the eyes of a larger animal—say, an owl?—staring back at us. This is used to intimidate would-be predators.

Not all animals are blessed to be born looking just like the thing they’re imitating. So some species have to become really good actors to pull off their disguises. Smaller owls can be pretty amazing contortionists. They can look big and round when relaxed, and puff up even bigger if they’re trying to intimidate someone. But if they’ve lost all their courage, they may try to look as small and skinny as possible to stay hidden.

A lot of creatures go for the low profile look. Small lizards or frogs will lay flat on a leaf or branch trying to blend in. Other birds will try to get lost in tall grass. Bitterns are herons that can be quite shy. They’ll stand ramrod straight and just to try to look like another stalk of grass. It’s quite effective!

American Bittern

An American bittern shows why they’re often so hard to spot.

Potoos are another master of camouflage. They too will stand rigidly on branches. With grayish plumage and by keeping their eyes closed, they just start to look like an extension of the branch!

Great Potoo Chick

Even a young potoo can stay hidden given the right perch.

It’s incredible the steps animals can take to hide from predators and prey. Next time you’re wandering around in nature, see if you can spot the different adaptations some of these animals have developed to blend in with their environment.


Other Resources

Patterns In Nature: I previously wrote about Patterns in Nature in the blog, if you’d like to see a few more examples of why fur, scale, and feather patterns are important to wild animals.

More Macro Camouflage Examples: I mentioned some other photographers who do some outstanding macro photography work and have plenty of excellent examples of camouflage and mimicry in their portfolios. Be sure to check out their incredible work!

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