Camouflage: Nature’s Fashion Statement with a Purpose

Guest contributor:  Phil Wyde

Have you ever wondered why animals look the way they do;  why there are so many small brown birds;  why a fawn has white splotches on its sides;  why a zebra has black and white stripes?  Nature has given each a coloration and shape to help them survive and produce future generations.

Mama owl guarding the nest at Reveille Peak Ranch. (Courtesy of Jim Baines)
Mama owl guarding the nest at Reveille Peak Ranch.
(Courtesy of Jim Baines)

Whether predator or prey, the color and shape adaptations are critical to the survival of their species.  These adaptations are shaped by their environment and the challenges they face in just getting through the day.

Camouflage can be simply a matter of coloring like feathers of the owl in the photo above helping it blend in with the wood around its nest.   The snake below is well camouflaged against the rocks.  It can fool both its prey, small rodents, and its predators such as the red-tailed hawk and the kestrel.

The western diamond back uses it's camouflage to hide from it's prey. (Courtesy of Jim Baines)
The western diamond back uses it’s camouflage to hide from it’s prey. (Courtesy of Jim Baines)

The green anole lizard is really cool.  It can change colors from bright green as in the photo below to several mixes of browns and greens depending on color around it.  It’s a tasty treat for cats, snakes, and birds.  It adds an additional protection feature beyond its camouflage capabilities.  The anole’s tail will continue to wiggle even after a predator has bitten it off.  This hopefully keeps them distracted long enough for the clever anole to dash away.

A green anole lizard hangs out on a stalk of a yucca plant. (Courtesy of Paula Richards)
A green anole lizard hangs out on a stalk of a yucca plant. (Courtesy of Paula Richards)

Some creatures begin life as one color and then change as they mature.  Think of fawns hiding in the woods.  The light in the forest filters through the leaves and branches making little spotlights on the ground.  Now apply that image to the coat of a young deer and you’ll see how clever nature is.  As fawns grow older, the white spots disappear but the brown camouflage still helps them as they move through the woods avoiding predators.

The coloring of these fawns helps protect them until they are able to fend for themselves. (Courtesy of Phil Wyde)
The coloring of these fawns helps protect them until they are able to fend for themselves. (Courtesy of Phil Wyde)

Some animals take their camouflage with them through the seasons.  Animals such as the Arctic fox and the snowshoe hare change colors as the snow falls.

snowshoe-hare_Michael S Quiton_NatlGeo C
Snowshoe hare making it difficult for the Arctic fox to find it against the white background of the snow. (Courtesy of Michael S Quiton, National Geographic)

Some animals rely on both shape and color.  Can you spot who’s hiding in this photo?  If you look just below the top branch, you see what looks like a shorter twig with smaller bent branches off each side,  and long antenna at the left end of the “branch”.  That is a walking stick.  Given the size, this one has been very successful with its camouflage.

Shape helps the walking stick blend in with the twigs on this tree. (Courtesy of Paula Richards)
Shape helps the walking stick blend in with the twigs on this tree. (Courtesy of Paula Richards)

Others creatures use their coloring as a warning.  For example, we know that the monarch caterpillar is a lover of milkweed.  Eating so much milkweed makes the caterpillar and the resulting butterfly taste terrible and keeps their predators away.

Monarch caterpillar on a milkweed blossom. (Photo courtesy of Sue Kersey)
Monarch caterpillar on a milkweed blossom.  (Photo courtesy of Sue Kersey)

And taking a cue from the monarch, the coloring of queen and viceroy butterflies copies that of the monarch, especially when the wings are folded, with similar markings as that of the monarch.  This look-a-like color scheme, known as mimicry, helps protect them from predators, and they don’t have to eat that terrible tasting milkweed.

Queen butterfly on blue mist wildflower. (Courtesy of Phil Wyde)
Queen butterfly on blue mist wildflower.  (Courtesy of Phil Wyde)

Even fish get into the camouflage act.  The coloring of the bass makes it hard for the little fish to spot, especially against the sun shining through the water.   Most fish are lightly colored underneath, and thus look like they’re just part of the sky when viewed from underneath.  Think of a predator looking up trying to spot a minnow near the top of the lake.  These same fish are generally darker on the top portion of their bodies.  In this case, it’s to fool predator birds and other critters looking for a tasty snack.  When viewed from above, they look like the bottom of the lake or river.   This guy forgot about the most dangerous predator — the fisherman.  He wasn’t fooled!

The bass blends into the background in his underwater home. (Courtesy of Jim Baines)
The bass blends into the background in his underwater home. (Courtesy of Jim Baines)

The zebra depends on a weakness of its main predator the lion.  You’d think that the bold black and white stripes would make it stand out.  However, the lion is color-blind.  They see only in shades of grey.  The stripes of the zebra help it fade into the background of greys and lights found on the grasslands and scrub trees.

You may think the zebra standouts - except to lions who are color blind. What the lion sees is blended into the background of trees and grasses. (Courtesy of Phil Wyde)
You may think the zebra stand outs – except to lions who are color blind. What the lion sees is blended into the background of trees and grasses. (Courtesy of Phil Wyde)

The family portrait of a house finch family shows the father, mother and baby, all decked out in their best camouflage gear, ready to take on the day and to hide from any predator’s sharp eyes.

A house finch family showing coloration through the generations. (Courtesy of Jim Baines)
A house finch family showing coloration through the generations. (Courtesy of Jim Baines)

If protective camouflage only makes a predator hesitate moment, the prey has a much better chance of escaping.   For the predator, if it can sneak a little closer to its prey, or they get closer to him, he gets a tasty meal.  Either way, camouflage is a very important to survival.

The question for the day:  do humans also use camouflage in their daily lives?

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