Camouflage, also called cryptic coloration, is a defense or tactic that organisms use to disguise their appearance, usually to blend in with their surroundings. Organisms use
to mask their location, identity, and movement. This allows prey to avoid predators, and for
to sneak up on
depends on several factors. The physical characteristics of the organism are important. Animals with fur rely on different
than those with feathers or scales, for instance.
and scales can be shed and changed fairly regularly and quickly.
, on the other hand, can take weeks or even months to grow in. Animals with
are more often
by season. The arctic fox, for example, has a white coat in the winter, while its summer
The behavior of a species is also important. Animals that live in groups differ from those that are solitary. The stripes on a zebra, for instance, make it stand out. However, zebras are social animals, meaning they live and migrate in large groups called herds. When clustered together, it is nearly impossible to tell one zebra from another, making it difficult for
such as lions to stalk an individual animal.
is also influenced by the
or characteristics of its
. If the
is color-blind, for example, the
species will not need to match the color of its surroundings. Lions, the main
of zebras, are
. Zebras’ black-and-white
does not need to blend in to their habitat, the golden savanna of central Africa.
factors cause species to employ a wide variety of
. Some of these
, such as background matching and disruptive coloration, are forms of mimicry.
is when one organism looks or acts like an object or another organism.
is perhaps the most common
, a species conceals itself by resembling its surroundings in coloration, form, or movement. In its simplest form, animals such as deer and squirrels resemble the “earth tones” of their surroundings. Fish such as flounder almost exactly match their speckled seafloor
More complex forms of
of the walking stick and walking leaf. These two insects, both native to southeast Asia, look and act like their namesakes. Patterns on the edge of the walking leaf’s body
bite marks left by caterpillars in leaves. The
even sways from side to side as it walks, to better
the swaying of a leaf in the breeze.
, the identity and
of a species may be disguised through a coloration pattern. This form of visual disruption causes
to misidentify what they are looking at. Many butterflies have large, circular patterns on the upper part of their wings. These patterns, called eyespots,
the eyes of animals much larger than the butterfly, such as owls.
such as birds and misdirect them from the soft, vulnerable part of the butterfly’s body.
Other species use coloration
that highlight rather than hide their identity. This type of
is called warning coloration or aposematism.
aware of the organism’s toxic or dangerous
. Species that demonstrate
include the larva and adult stages of the monarch butterfly. The monarch
is brightly striped with yellow, black, and white. The
is patterned with orange, black, and white. Monarchs eat milkweed, which is a poison to many birds. Monarchs retain the
in their bodies. The
toxin is not deadly, but the bird will vomit. The bright coloring warns
birds that an upset stomach is probably not worth a monarch meal.
Another animal that uses
is the deadly coral snake, whose brightly colored rings alert other species to its
venom. The coral snake’s
is so well known in the animal kingdom that other, non-threatening species
it in order to
their true identities. The harmless scarlet king snake has the same black, yellow, and red striped pattern as the coral snake. The scarlet king snake is
as a coral snake.
Countershading is a form of
in which the top of an animal’s body is darker in color, while its underside is lighter. Sharks use
. When seen from above, they blend in with the darker ocean water below. This makes it difficult for fishermen—and swimmers—to see them. When seen from below, they blend in with lighter surface water. This helps them hunt because
species below may not see a
until it’s too late.
also helps because it changes the way shadows are created. Sunlight illuminates the top of an animal’s body, casting its belly in shadow. When an animal is all one color, it will create a uniform shadow that makes the animal’s shape easier to see. In
, however, the animal is darker where the sun would normally
it, and lighter where it would normally be in shadow. This distorts the shadow and makes it harder for
to see the animal’s true shape.
Animal species are able to
themselves through two primary mechanisms: pigments and physical structures.
Some species have natural, microscopic
, known as biochromes, which absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect others. Species with
actually appear to change colors. Many species of octopus have a variety of
that allow them to change the color, pattern, and opacity of their skin.
Other species have
physical structures that act like prisms, reflecting and scattering light to produce a color that is different from their skin. The polar bear, for instance, has black skin. Its translucent
reflects the sunlight and snow of its
, making the bear appear white.
can change with the environment. Many animals, such as the arctic fox, change their
themselves in response to a
. Other species, such as nudibranchs—brightly colored, soft-bodied ocean “slugs”—can change their skin coloration by changing their diet.
Chameleons change colors in order to communicate. When a
, it does not change color to blend in to its surroundings. It changes color to warn other
that there is danger nearby.
Some forms of
are not based on coloration. Some species attach or attract natural materials to their bodies in order to hide from
. Many varieties of desert spiders, for instance, live in burrows in the sandy ground. They attach sand to the upper part of their bodies in order to blend in with their
olfactory camouflage, hiding from
by “covering up” their smell or masking themselves in another species’ smell. The California ground squirrel, for instance, chews up and spits out rattlesnake skin, then applies the paste to its tail. The ground squirrel smells somewhat like its main
, which senses by smell and body heat, is confused and hesitant about attacking another
Dressing for the Part
The dresser crab gets its name for a reason: The animal picks up pieces of coral and sponge with its claws and places them on the Velcro-like hairs that cover its body. When a predator, such as a blowfish, passes by, the dresser crab freezes, blending into the seafloor. The dresser crab adapts to its environment so well that even when placed in a fish tank full of human objects, such as lace and pearl necklaces, the creature will get "dressed up" for the occasion, appearing to be just another trinket at the bottom of the tank.
Ghillie suits are a type of camouflage used by the military and hunters to blend in to thick vegetation. In addition to patterns of contrasting green or khaki, ghillie suits feature elements of foliage from the area: twigs, leaves, and branches.
In Australia, ghillie suits are nicknamed "yowies," for their resemblance to the Yowie, a mythical creature similar to Bigfoot.
Militaries did not use camouflage until the 17th and 18th centuries. Before then, military uniforms were brightly colored, in order to intimidate the enemy.
In the 1850s, the British Army suffered massive casualties in India. (Indians were fighting for their independence.) British leaders dyed their bright white uniforms a dull, sandy tan to blend in with the desert surroundings. They called these newly colored uniforms khakis, a Hindu word for "dust."
Razzle Dazzle, or dazzle camouflage, was a tactic used by Allied forces during World War I and World War II. Large ships, such as aircraft carriers, were painted with bold, geometric patterns. Razzle Dazzle did not camouflage the so-called "dazzle ships," but made it difficult for opposing forces to judge the size and type of the vessel.
The scarlet king snake is harmless, but its black, yellow, and red stripes mimic the stripes of the deadly coral snake. The only real difference between the two patterns is the order of the colors. The coral snakes pattern is red-yellow-black. The scarlet king snakes pattern is red-black-yellow.
A rhyme makes the distinction easy to remember.
Red on yellow kills a fellow,
Red on black wont hurt Jack.