Camouflage: Ways Animals Blend in With Geography

Caitlin Dempsey

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Camouflage is a way for animals and insects to blend in with their surroundings in order to avoid detection. Both predators and prey use camouflage as a survival tactic.

Also known as cryptic coloration, camouflage allows prey to remain undetected by hunting animals and insects.

For predators, camouflage enables the predator to sneak closer to prey while hunting. By not having to chase after prey for long distances, predators can save on energy this way.

Animals and insects use different strategies to camouflage their presence. The strategy of avoiding detection by other animals or insects is called crypsis.

Active Camouflage

Some animals, like octopus and chameleons, have the ability to quickly change their coloring and patterns to match changes in their environment.

Octopus (Octopoda) camouflaged against the rocks.
Octopus (Octopoda) camouflaged against the rocks. Photo: Haulover Bay, Virgin Islands National Park. NPS, public domain.

Color matching

As the name suggests, color matching is when an animal develops the same external color as the environment in which it lives. The geography of the environment will determine how the animal or insect is colored.

Color matching is also known as background matching.

Lizard camouflaged against dried leaves.
Can you see the lizard? Photo: NPS, Chiricahua National Monument, public domain.

For example, animals that live in the Arctic will have an all white coloring to blend in with the snow and ice.

The strategy of color matching as a camouflage works best when the insect or animal lives in an environment where one main color dominates.

Killdeer, a widespread plover bird in North America are a good example of color matching. These small birds prefer open habitat such as open fields, mudflats, and beaches.

The exposed dirt of a horse stable as seen in the photo below provides another optimal environment that allows the brownish-tan feathers of a killdeer to blend in with the soil.

A tan colored small bird walking on the ground.
The coloring of a killdeer’s feathers makes it hard to see against the exposed dirt. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

The Western Fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis) has a brown to black coloring in its scales that allows it to blend in well against tree trunks, rocks, and against the soil.

A gray lizard against a gray trunk of a tree.
The Western Fence lizard’s coloring helps it to stay camouflaged against the trunk of a tree. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Seasonal Changes in Camouflage

White-tailed ptarmigans and snowshoe hares show seasonal changes in their plumage or pelage, with white in the winter and brown in the summer.

Other animals, like the Arctic fox, will also change fur colors to match the seasons.

Over 20 species of birds and mammals found throughout the northern hemisphere go through a complete color shift twice a year, from brown in the summer to entirely white in the winter and back again in the spring.

Photo of a snowshoe hare sitting on snow.
During the winter months, the snowshoe hare has a completely white coat. Photo: Jacob W. Frank/NPS, public domain.

Camouflage Mismatch

Winter-white species are species whose fur changes to white during the winter to blend with the snow.

Spring brings rising temperatures coupled with a biological reaction to the shortening length of the days to trigger the change in coat color to brown.

The reverse happens to trigger molting to produce a white coat with dropping temperatures and shorter days.

A white snowshoe hare against a dirt background.
When snowshoe hares hold on to their white winter coat after the snow melts, they stand out against their environment. Photo: NPS, public domain.

Camouflage mismatch happens when the biological timing of this change back to a brown fur does not align with the changing season.

As climate change shortens and shifts the colder winter months, species like the snowshoe hare are experiencing camouflage mismatch that puts them at a higher risk of predation.

The survival strategy of the snowshoe hare is to stay motionless until a predator has passed, a tactic that doesn’t work with camouflage mismatch.

Disruptive coloration

Animals and insects with stripes, spots, and multiple colors use disruptive coloration to hide.

The combination of patterns and colors helps to visually disrupt the shape of the individual in its environment and make it less noticeable.

The speckled coat of the California ground squirrel (Otospermophilus beecheyi) helps to obscure it against California chaparral vegetation. The speckling on this squirrel’s coat helps to mimic to dappled effect of sunlight as it passes through vegetation.

California ground squirrel sitting on the trunk of a fallen oak tree.
A California ground squirrel (Otospermophilus beecheyi) is hard to see against the bark of a fallen oak tree due to its camouflage. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Obliterative Shading: Camouflage to Help Hide from Predators Above and Below

Also known as obliterative shading, some animals have two-toned camouflage to protect them from dangers both above and below them.

Penguins and turtles both have lighter underbellies that mimic looking up at the sky from underwater but have darker backsides that blend in with the water when viewed from above.

A pair of King Penguins at Fortuna Bay. Photo: Lieutenant Philip Hall, NOAA, public domain.
The penguin’s two-tone coloring helps it to evade detection from above and below by predators when in the water. A pair of King Penguins at Fortuna Bay. Photo: Lieutenant Philip Hall, NOAA, public domain.

Mimesis

Some animals and insects will develop body parts that look like part of the environment or another animal.

Mimesis is also known as masquerading. The point of mimesis is to be mistaken for some object the predator would normally be disinterested in.

The Katydid (Microcentrum rhombifolium) mimics a green leaf as camouflage.
One of these “leaves” is not like the others. The Katydid (Microcentrum rhombifolium) mimics a green leaf as camouflage. Photo: Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site, NPS, public domain.

Insects that look like sticks, leaves, and rocks and insects and animals that have large, fake eyes are examples of mimesis.

Macleay's spectre (Extatosoma tiaratum) disguised as chewed gum leaves.
Macleay’s spectre (Extatosoma tiaratum) mimicking lichen. This species Photo: © Jon Glittenberg, Petrified Pixels, used with permission.

Self-decoration

Animals add pieces of their environment such as leaves or moss to help them blend in with the geography. This type of camouflage is called self-decoration.

For example, this Eastern painted turtle has camouflaged itself with pond vegetation to avoid predation by hawks and other birds of prey. The covering of pond vegetation helps to conceal the turtle while it is basking on a log.

This Eastern painted turtle has camouflaged itself with pond vegetation.
This Eastern painted turtle has camouflaged itself with pond vegetation. Photo: Dave Fitzpatrick, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, public domain.

Sandhill cranes will engage in “feather staining” which involves painting their feathers with mud and marsh vegetation in order to blend in with their environment during nesting season.

References

Animal camouflage. (2012, March 31). NPS.gov. https://www.nps.gov/romo/animal_camouflage.htm

Nesbitt, S. A. (1975). Feather staining in Florida sandhill cranes. Florida Field Naturalist3, 28-30. https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/FFN_03-2-p28-30Nesbitt[1].pdf

Zimova, M., Hackländer, K., Good, J. M., Melo‐Ferreira, J., Alves, P. C., & Mills, L. S. (2018). Function and underlying mechanisms of seasonal colour moulting in mammals and birds: what keeps them changing in a warming world?. Biological Reviews93(3), 1478-1498. DOI: 10.1111/brv.12405

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.

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