...Camouflage Q & A

Questions and answers about animal disguises

What is camouflage?
Camouflage (KAM-oh-flahj) is a kind of coloring, body shape, and/or behavior animals use to protect themselves. Camouflage helps animals hide by blending in with their environment. Camouflage may also help animals avoid danger by fooling other animals into leaving them alone.

Camouflage works for both sides in the battle for survival. Prey animals use it to avoid being found and eaten. Predators use it to keep from being seen by prey until it's too late.

How do animals get their camouflage colors?
The color of an animal's scales, fur or feathers comes from pigments in the animal's skin cells. Groups of pigments make different colors or patterns. When a skin cell's pigments change, the color of the animal's outer covering changes, too. Sometimes, this change is slow. For example, young animals undergo color changes as they grow into adults.

The color change can follow changing seasons, too, especially where winter brings lots of snow. In the far north, animals often have white fur or feathers in winter. When spring melts the snows, the white fur and feathers fall out. Pigments in the skin cells change. When new feathers and fur grow in, they match the new color or pattern of the landscape.

The color change can also happen within minutes. Frogs, toads and some fish can change the colors of their skin or scales to match a surface that's near them.

What kinds of camouflage are there?
An animal may have a solid body color that matches the color of its environment. A green katydid or grasshopper uses of this kind of camouflage. Many insects that feed on plants have solid green bodies during part or all of their lives.

Many natural surfaces have more than one color. Think of a forest floor covered with leaves and rocks, or a patch of bark, or a pond bottom. As a result, animals often have patterns of spots, stripes or uneven patches which help camouflage them. This kind of camouflage makes the shape of an animal harder to pick out from the other shapes around it. To the human eye, some of these patterns might seem to make the animal stand out more. To the animal eye, though, they match a larger pattern in the environment.

Have you ever wondered why a fawn, or young deer, has spots? The fawn lies still in the grass while its mother is away. Its spotted coat looks like patches of sunlight falling on the forest floor.

Shadows and sunlight
Many animals use a kind of camouflage called counter-shading. These animals have bodies that are dark on top and light on the bottom. Mice, white-tailed dear, Canada geese, otters and largemouth bass are a few examples. How does countershading work? When sunlight shines on an animal's darker colors, it makes them look lighter. When the animal's lighter-colored parts are in shadow, it makes them look darker. The two areas of color blend together when seen from a distance. The animal's outline is harder to pick out from surrounding patterns.

Countershading works really well for water animals. Looking down on a swimming water animal, its body blends with the shadowy depths below. Looking up at the animal, its light-colored underside blends with the sun-streaked surface above it.

Camouflage can go beyond body color. It can also involve body shape or movement. Insects often use a kind of camouflage called imitation (IM-uh-TAY-shun). The shape of their bodies, along with their coloring, makes them look like other things. For example, some kinds of swallowtail butterflies look like bird poop when they first hatch as caterpillars!

Insects are also good at mimicry (MIM-ik-ree), which is a bit like imitation. An insect pretends to be something it isn't. In this case, it pretends to be another kind of insect.

The monarch butterfly is a bad-tasting insect that most birds will not eat. The viceroy butterfly has a black-and-orange wing pattern that closely matches the monarch's. Birds who see a viceroy leave it alone, thinking it's a monarch. Many harmless insects look and fly like bees, insects which can really sting.

Why would an animal have bright colors that make it stand out, Dr. Bob?

As you may have guessed, brightly colored animals are often armed with other forms of protection. They may taste bad, be poisonous, or have a painful bite or sting. These animals use their bright colors to warn predators who might make a meal of them. They send the message, "Stay away, or you'll be sorry." Sometimes, an animal's bright colors draw attention to a certain part of its body used for fighting, such as claws. Birds are brightly colored for a different reason. If you watch carefully, you'll notice that the flashy colors are worn by males, not females. A male bird uses its colors to catch the eye of a female it wants to join to raise a family. Male birds also show off their colors to other males. They're saying, "Keep away from my home and my mate!" Being brightly colored can be dangerous for birds, but being able to fly helps a lot. Still, many male birds turn a dull brown during winter time, when there's no need to mate. Female birds are always less flashy, so they can hide when nesting and raising young. Even people use bright colors to attract attention like my fancy tie in the picture above.