Masters of Disguise

The art of blending in with one’s surroundings to avoid detection by predator or prey is called camouflage. How does an animal pull a Houdini out of thin air? Where is it actually hiding? Explaining the phenomenon of camouflage in the animal kingdom, Rahul Rohitashwa talks about the animals in disguise.

Our natural world is full of wonders.  There are a wide variety of plants and animals that we come across daily, who display their unique habit or a range of survival techniques like hunting, roosting, mating, acclimation etc. However sometimes we encounter some exceptional species of animals or plants which are hard to find, or more specifically one could not spot their presence at one glance. This distinctive behaviour of animals and plants to disguise or hide in their natural surrounding is known as camouflage.

A Common Warbler bird exhibiting camouflage

A common warbler bird camouflage.

Camouflage, or rather, blending or adapting with the local environment, is a type of animal behavior where animals adjust to different environmental conditions to survive and flourish. In some animals, the capacity to camouflage with the surroundings is a common adaptation. For example, some insects, reptiles and mammals have definite markings in their bodies which make it difficult to differentiate them from shadows and branches or even from other members of the group. While the carnivores (flesh-eating animals) and herbivores (plant-eating animals) exhibit camouflage to eat their food of choice, some other animals camouflage themselves to avoid being eaten by the predators. Some others have some behavioral adaptations to attract opposite sexes.  For example, the males of some animals, particularly in birds and some reptiles like snakes and lizards, have bright colorations on their wings and underparts which accentuate it in sexual selection and female attraction. In fact, the ability of camouflage works in various ways. However camouflage is widely exhibited by predators to attack unexpectedly and also by the prey in order to remain unnoticed.

It is not an exaggeration to state that almost every animal on this planet camouflages itself in order to defend or offend. In this context, studies say that the degree of camouflage varies from animal to animal dependant upon its local environment, numbers of prey, vegetations etc. For instance, the area where the numbers of predators are below par or optimum, the coloration of the body and activity of the prey are far more conspicuous or clear in their natural environment, but the area where the numbers of predators are more, then, in these situations nature has provided prey with novel mechanisms so that they can blend or adapt better with their respective surroundings with complete disguises.

A Common Three Striped Squirrel in Camouflage.

A common three striped squirrel in camouflage.

In the natural world, one can find many animals which camouflage themselves to deceive others. For example, the Polar bear which are white in color match perfectly with the polar ice, whereas the common green tree-frog found in the Amazon rainforest is almost invisible in the deep green canopy of rainforest leaves. There are also some types of animals which camouflage with their surroundings when seen from two different directions i.e. either from above or below. For example the light colored ventral underside part of the spotted eagle perfectly matches that of clear water when seen from below while its darker dorsal part camouflages with the land when seen from above. However, in some cases, camouflage works by breaking up animals outline making it difficult to spot it from its background or to focus on an individual within a herd. This phenomenon is widely seen in the case of Zebras, Antelopes, Wildebeasts and in some species of deer like Springbok etc. Perhaps the black and white stripes of a Zebra herd confuse predators like lions because these types of patterns disrupt the outline of an individual animal in the group.

In some extreme cases of camouflage, animals such as chameleons, octopus and cuttlefish change their exterior body color very rapidly and disguise themselves blending in with their respective environment due to the various types of chromatophores which are found in the dermal of their skin. Some arctic animals like Arctic hare, Arctic owl etc. change their fur color according to the changing season. They are white in color during winter, while in the summer season their coat color changes to grey. Some marine animals like the leafy sea dragon found around the coast of Australia have extra body parts which make their disguises perfect. It has flowing appendages attached to its body that make the animal look like a piece of floating seaweed. In some other cases the larvae of swallowtail butterflies resemble a bird dropping which drive off birds and other animals from eating them. In the wet season algae (a microscopic plant) grows on the fur of the South American Sloth turning the fur coat of the animal green so that it becomes perfectly camouflaged with its natural green canopy of trees. On the other hand several species of deer, squirrels and many types of small mammals worldwide have brownish color of their skin to match perfectly the bark of a tree or natural vegetations. Many species of birds, insects and butterfly camouflage, blend or hide so precisely in their respective environments that it is almost impossible to trace them until unless they make any movements influenced by external forces.

A fledgling of Common Rock Chat bird in Camouflage.

A fledgling of common rock chat bird in camouflage.

While the assumption that animals camouflage themselves only under duress during attack or when threatened is not always true, one can find many species of animals like lizards, various species of insects, birds, caterpillars, moths etc. in their usual environment like terrace garden, kitchen garden and also in orchards camouflaged in such a way that are beyond one’s imagination. It truly is an art to blend in with their natural habitat, and is extremely difficult to notice, let alone document. The one and only requirement essential for their study is keen interest in natural history and a working knowledge of basic photography. But above all patience, persistence and alertness are the essential ingredients in order to find the nature’s masters of disguise.


Read also: Vetnai: the village of Blackbucks

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About the Author /

Nature Activist & Ornithologist, Freelance Science Writer & Photographer, currently working as Quality Control Inspector Food Corporation of India, Bhagalpur, Bihar

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