Protective coloration is a defensive tactic used by almost all animals. Find out more about animals that use it, in this AnimalSake article.
Did You Know?
Some squids can emit light from their bodies to match the sunlight coming from above. This makes them virtually undetectable from below.
Colors have much more significance in the animal world than mere appearance―in fact, most animals are partially colorblind. Colors can be a flirty opening line, they can be a smiling glance of approval, or even a hurtful cold shoulder. They serve as vital camouflage suits, they act as mobile phones, and even as sunscreen!
Coloration is the most visible expression of an organism’s genetic pattern. After several million years of evolution, most animals have by now achieved the color pattern most suited for their natural habitat and role in the local food chains.
Evolutionarily, it would be impossible for a color mutation to survive unless it was beneficial in some way. Virtually every animal (and plant, for that matter) in the world relies on their coloration for either protection from predators, concealment from prey, or sexual selection. This article focuses on the former two applications of color patterns in the animal world.
Protective coloration can work in several ways, such as defensive or predatory camouflage, warning coloration, mimicry, distraction, etc.
A large number of animals use their color patterns to blend into their environment. Tree-dwelling animals may be colored like bark, or may have patterns that help them blend into leaves. Terrestrial animals are often clad in drab shades of brown to help them pass by unnoticed in their dusty/muddy environment. Snow-dwelling animals often have white fur that helps them conceal themselves against the constant wall of white. Many animals possess scattered patches of varying colors that help them blend into the jungle environment; many predators use this technique to great effect. Some animals, such as the pygmy sea horses, have developed incredible color and patterns that help them blend into their environment. This defensive tactic is called crypsis. Here are some animals that use this technique.
These incredible creatures are some of the most accomplished camouflage experts in the world. At just 1.5 cm long, they are one of the smallest seahorses, and use both their miniscule size and color patterns to perfectly blend into their natural habitat of coral reefs. These sea horses were discovered completely by accident; they were captured along with some corals, and were only discovered when the corals were being studied!
This weird South American bird is one of the elite camouflage experts in the animal kingdom. Its feathers bear the same pattern as dried up bark and tree branches, lending the potoo an excellent hideaway. It spends much of the day perched on a branch, exposed only when it occasionally opens its beak or flutters a wing, and flies out after dark to catch insects.
Frogmouths are related to Potoos, and use similar tactics for concealment. Though they are found, with mutual exclusivity, on different continents, their body pattern and behavior is remarkably similar. Their plumage is similar to the trees they perch on, and they are extremely difficult to spot for predators, when employing their defensive pose.
Related to potoos and frogmouths, nightjars are usually colored brown and black, colors that hide them well on their terrestrial nests.
Owls are nocturnal predators, and spend most of the day hiding in tree burrows. Their dull plumage blends into the tree, and they are indeed very hard to spot during daytime.
Green Vine Snake
This slender wonder of nature is almost exclusively arboreal, and for good reason. The strikingly green serpent effortlessly blends into foliage, and is virtually undetectable unless it descends from its perch or moves suddenly. Two species of snakes, found in South America and southeast Asia respectively, are known as green vine snakes, and are both colored in a similar fashion.
This apparently spiritual insect predator hides among the greenery preferred by their target, and pounces when the moment is right.
These terrestrial birds are colored in shades of brown that hide them excellently in their sandy habitats.
Caterpillars employ two types of protective coloring: camouflage and warning. Many caterpillars are colored just like the plant they grow up on, making them harder to spot for birds and other predators.
The morbid, scaly appearance of crocodiles may be scary, but it is purpose-driven. In the turbid rivers where crocodiles are usually found, a stealthy crocodile can easily be confused by prey for a harmless log of wood. Crocodiles can keep virtually their entire body underwater, while scanning the surface above. This allows them to get close to their unsuspecting prey, from where they can launch their lightning-quick attack.
This drab-colored snake is ideally suited for its desert habitat. Like all snakes, it is an expert ambush predator, and lies concealed under the sand in wait. Only its head can be seen above the surface, and even that is quite hard to spot.
A large number of snakes are unbelievable masters of concealment and camouflage. The copperhead, one of the deadliest and most notorious snakes in North America, has a stunning pattern of randomly placed blotches on its skin that blends into the vegetation, leaves, and twigs. Thus, protected from detection, it can lie in wait for unfortunate prey to wander its way.
This venomous fish is virtually undetectable as it lies in wait for its prey. Aptly named, the stonefish resembles just another coral-adorned stone on the ocean floor, right up to the moment it strikes.
All big cats rely on stealth and ambush to catch their prey, and accordingly, need to get as close to their target as they can.
A lion’s golden coat conceals it in the golden brown terrain of the African savannahs. Lions try to get as close as they can to their prey, so that their lack of speed doesn’t matter that much in the hunt. Their camouflage is crucial to that end.
Tigers hunt primarily in forested areas; in terrain covered with long grass. Since they usually hunt at dawn or dusk, their otherwise conspicuous stripes allow them to advance unseen through the long grass.
Both leopards and jaguars hunt in heavily forested areas (though the former often shares territory with lions and tigers). Their rosettes are of great advantage in the ever-shifting shadows in the dappled sunlight.
In a phenomenon commonly observed in the tundras, several animals sport different coats in the summer and the winter. The winter coats of these animals are white, helping them blend in with the omnipresent mass of snow and ice. In the winter, the white coats help these animals either escape from predators or ambush prey. As summer rolls around, the white coats make way for brown-and-black coats, which help the animals hide in the summer landscape. Here are some examples of such animals.
These are two closely related hares. The one on the left is the arctic hare in its winter fur, and the other is the snowshoe hare in its summer coat.
These are the two seasonal plumage patterns of the ptarmigan, or rock ptarmigan.
The arctic fox, a major predator for both arctic hares and ptarmigans, also changes its own coat according to seasonal shifts.
Some animals go one step further than the ones you just read about, and actually change their colors at will. The chameleon is, of course, the most famous example of this phenomenon. However, they aren’t the only ones who can change their color; numerous aquatic organisms also have this ability. Like in the case of chameleons, and contrary to popular misconception, these color changes aren’t always for camouflage. Oftentimes, the colors are meant as messages to members of the same species. Changing colors is used to signal sexual availability, or to warn other animals of the same species.
Here are some of the animals that could make a better Mystique than Jennifer Lawrence.
Chameleons primarily use their ability to change color to express their mood, but it is also used to blend into a new environment.
Cuttlefish primarily use their ability for camouflage, unlike chameleons. They assess their surroundings, and take up the appropriate color. The fascinating thing with cuttlefish is that, they can change the color on their entire body in less than a second! They use this ability to ‘flash’, considered a form of communication. Other cephalopods such as octopuses and squids also share this ability.
Flounder fish are flatfish, and accordingly, drift along the ocean floor. They can change their colors to match the color of the seabed that they happen to be passing over. They can become completely indiscernible once they settle in the sand or among rocks.
Countershading is observed in almost all higher animals in the world. Animals such as dolphins, sharks, penguins, deer, cheetahs, etc., have much darker dorsal (back) sides than ventral (front). Though it does help terrestrial animals such as deer, it is mainly useful for oceanic predators.
Sharks, dolphins, and penguins, notably, have an almost white belly, steadily transitioning into a dark gray-black back. This makes these predators harder to spot from below, where their faint ventral side is hard to distinguish against the sunlight, and above, where their dark backs blend into the dark depths of the ocean.
Numerous animals have evolved to be virtual facsimiles of other animals or objects. This provides the mimic with a huge advantage, by allowing it to hide in plain sight. Animals mimicking an inanimate object, such as a leaf or a twig, can rest around leaves and twigs with their safety virtually assured. Animals mimicking other animals, which is called mimesis, often mimic more dangerous, feared animals than themselves. This gives the weaker mimic better chances of not being attacked.
Here are some of the best mimics in the animal world.
These unbelievable wonders of evolution are undetectable when hiding in a tree. Complete with a leaf-like network of veins, these animals even walk in a manner similar to a leaf being blown around in the wind. Some even have apparent bite marks on the edges, resembling a leaf more realistically.
Like the leaf insect, brown stick insects are virtually indistinguishable from real twigs when hiding among a mass of the latter. Their amazing body structure helps them hide from predators.
Dead Leaf Butterfly
Many butterflies are excellent mimics of inanimate objects, but the dead leaf butterfly arguably takes the cake. It even has a midrib on each of its wings, to simulate real leaves! As long as it stays still, it is for all practical purposes impossible to distinguish.
Like many butterflies and moths that have large ‘eyespots’ on their wings, the owl butterfly’s eyespots are designed to frighten off potential predators. These butterflies are mainly targeted by lizards and frogs. The eyespots, which resemble the eyes of owls, help the butterfly evade capture.
Hoverflies are harmless insects that feed on nectar and pollen. Many hoverfly species mimic more dangerous and venomous wasps. This keeps them safe from animals that fear the wasps.
Probably the only majorly found serpentine mimic, the milk snake is colored similarly to the venomous and abundant coral snake. The only difference is that in coral snakes, the red bands touch the yellow bands, whereas the red bands on the milk snake touch the black ones. Milk snakes, which are nonvenomous, are afforded excellent protection due to this similarity.
In the animal world, being conspicuously colored is almost always a disadvantage. Often though, bright colors act as warnings to potential predators. Brightly colored prey animals are more likely to be venomous, poisonous, or harmful in some other way. Many unpleasant-tasting butterflies and moths are colored in bright warning shades, and bright frogs are best left alone. Many benign animals have, in fact, evolved to resemble other harmful animals, and escape their own predators by mimicking the harmful organisms (as described in the previous section).
Here are some well-known examples of animals that use coloration as a warning.
Poison Dart Frogs
Poison dart frogs, especially members of the Phyllobates genus, are among the most poisonous animals in the world. Their attractive coloration actually serves as a warning to potential predators. The golden poison dart frog could even be the most poisonous animal in the world! Interestingly, the frogs aren’t venomous, i.e., the poison isn’t produced by the frogs themselves. It is thought to be accrued through their diet of insects that contain poisonous substances.
The appearance of the notoriously stinky skunk is a warning. The black-and-white coloring is not designed to hide the skunk―just the opposite, in fact. It is designed to make the skunk clearly visible to all potential predators, and sound a warning that the animal may not be palatable.
As mentioned before, caterpillars can be colored for two purposes: camouflage, and warning. The spines and bright colors of some caterpillars protect them from most predators, but birds still eat quite a few.
Some animals don’t bother with hiding themselves, warning potential predators that they may be poisonous, or even faking toxicity. These animals rely on coloring patterns that make it difficult for the predator to trace and catch them.
For instance, many noctuid moths conceal their brightly colored rear wings behind their drab front wings. If a predator attacks, the moths suddenly display their rear wings, giving them just enough time to make an escape while the predator is disoriented.
A surprising example of this coloring pattern comes from the African savannahs. Zebras, with their unique striped pattern, may appear to be sitting ducks for lions and leopards, but they have an ingenious trick up their sleeve. When zebras run together, the collage of the stripes on the zebras makes it difficult for their predators to identify and target an individual. If a single animal strays away from the group, it is indeed easy to pick off, but their pattern gives them better communal odds at survival.
All animals use their color patterns for some vital purpose, mostly to avoid becoming a prey. Some animals use a protective armor to ward off predators. As far as the use of color is concerned, these are the major applications of color patterns in the animal world, and some of the animals which best employ it.