camouflage | National Geographic Society (2023)

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

camouflage

to mask their location, identity, and movement. This allows prey to avoid predators, and for

predators

to sneak up on

prey

.

A species’

camouflage

depends on several factors. The physical characteristics of the organism are important. Animals with fur rely on different

camouflage

tactics

than those with feathers or scales, for instance.

Feathers

and scales can be shed and changed fairly regularly and quickly.

Fur

, on the other hand, can take weeks or even months to grow in. Animals with

fur

are more often

camouflaged

by season. The arctic fox, for example, has a white coat in the winter, while its summer

coat

is brown.

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

predators

such as lions to stalk an individual animal.

A species’

camouflage

is also influenced by the

behavior

or characteristics of its

predators

. If the

predator

is color-blind, for example, the

prey

species will not need to match the color of its surroundings. Lions, the main

predator

of zebras, are

color-blind

. Zebras’ black-and-white

camouflage

does not need to blend in to their habitat, the golden savanna of central Africa.

Camouflage Tactics

Environmental and

behavioral

factors cause species to employ a wide variety of

camouflage

tactics

. Some of these

tactics

, such as background matching and disruptive coloration, are forms of mimicry.

Mimicry

is when one organism looks or acts like an object or another organism.

Background matching

is perhaps the most common

camouflage

tactic

. In

background matching

, 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

habitats

.

More complex forms of

background matching

include the

camouflage

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

resemble

bite marks left by caterpillars in leaves. The

insect

even sways from side to side as it walks, to better

mimic

the swaying of a leaf in the breeze.

Another

camouflage

tactic

is

disruptive coloration

. In

disruptive coloration

, the identity and

location

of a species may be disguised through a coloration pattern. This form of visual disruption causes

predators

to misidentify what they are looking at. Many butterflies have large, circular patterns on the upper part of their wings. These patterns, called eyespots,

resemble

the eyes of animals much larger than the butterfly, such as owls.

Eyespots

may confuse

predators

such as birds and misdirect them from the soft, vulnerable part of the butterfly’s body.

Other species use coloration

tactics

that highlight rather than hide their identity. This type of

camouflage

is called warning coloration or aposematism.

Warning coloration

makes

predators

aware of the organism’s toxic or dangerous

characteristics

. Species that demonstrate

warning coloration

include the larva and adult stages of the monarch butterfly. The monarch

caterpillar

is brightly striped with yellow, black, and white. The

monarch butterfly

is patterned with orange, black, and white. Monarchs eat milkweed, which is a poison to many birds. Monarchs retain the

poison

in their bodies. The

milkweed

toxin is not deadly, but the bird will vomit. The bright coloring warns

predator

birds that an upset stomach is probably not worth a monarch meal.

Another animal that uses

aposematism

is the deadly coral snake, whose brightly colored rings alert other species to its

toxic

venom. The coral snake’s

warning coloration

is so well known in the animal kingdom that other, non-threatening species

mimic

it in order to

camouflage

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

camouflaged

as a coral snake.

Countershading is a form of

camouflage

in which the top of an animal’s body is darker in color, while its underside is lighter. Sharks use

countershading

. 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

prey

species below may not see a

shark

until it’s too late.

Countershading

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

countershading

, however, the animal is darker where the sun would normally

illuminate

it, and lighter where it would normally be in shadow. This distorts the shadow and makes it harder for

predators

to see the animal’s true shape.

Creating Camouflage

Animal species are able to

camouflage

themselves through two primary mechanisms: pigments and physical structures.

Some species have natural, microscopic

pigments

, known as biochromes, which absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect others. Species with

biochromes

actually appear to change colors. Many species of octopus have a variety of

biochromes

that allow them to change the color, pattern, and opacity of their skin.

Other species have

microscopic

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

fur

reflects the sunlight and snow of its

habitat

, making the bear appear white.

Camouflage

can change with the environment. Many animals, such as the arctic fox, change their

camouflage

with the

seasons

. Octopuses

camouflage

themselves in response to a

threat

. 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

chameleon

is

threatened

, it does not change color to blend in to its surroundings. It changes color to warn other

chameleons

that there is danger nearby.

Some forms of

camouflage

are not based on coloration. Some species attach or attract natural materials to their bodies in order to hide from

prey

and

predators

. 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

habitat

.

Other animals

demonstrate

olfactory camouflage, hiding from

prey

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

predator

. The

rattlesnake

, which senses by smell and body heat, is confused and hesitant about attacking another

venomous

snake.

Fast Fact

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.

Fast Fact

Ghillie Suits
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.

Fast Fact

Khaki Camouflage
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."

Fast Fact

Razzle Dazzle
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.

Fast Fact

Sneaky Snakes
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.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Rob Wisoky

Last Updated: 11/27/2022

Views: 6254

Rating: 4.8 / 5 (68 voted)

Reviews: 83% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Rob Wisoky

Birthday: 1994-09-30

Address: 5789 Michel Vista, West Domenic, OR 80464-9452

Phone: +97313824072371

Job: Education Orchestrator

Hobby: Lockpicking, Crocheting, Baton twirling, Video gaming, Jogging, Whittling, Model building

Introduction: My name is Rob Wisoky, I am a smiling, helpful, encouraging, zealous, energetic, faithful, fantastic person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.