Say the word camouflage to a naturalist and she tends to think immediately of the chameleon, a small lizard that changes color to blend in with its surroundings. But the chameleon is far from alone in its ability to adapt by disguising itself in response to changes in its environment or to danger. A variety of mammals, birds, insects, spiders, and denizens of the deep have developed comparable traits.
Camouflage, however, is not the only trick Mother Nature has up her evolutionary sleeve. Deception is everywhere in the animal kingdom, adding magic, mystery, and depth to our experiences in nature. Understanding the defensive and offensive measures creatures employ gives us a deeper appreciation of the world around us.
To children, perhaps, all grasshoppers look more or less alike. In basic configuration, in fact, they are possessed of a certain bilateral symmetry, with two eyes, two large jumping legs, and so forth. But grasshoppers certainly are not all uniformly green, as I imagined when I was growing up in Missouri. Some grasshoppers are patterned to resemble so closely the sand they perch on that you can’t see them until they jump, startling you with their sudden motion.
Protective coloration in the form of camouflage is one of nature’s best tricks. The wings of some butterflies, like the curve-toothed geometer, appear to be leaves complete with central veins. This fine attribute allows them to blend into the foliage on a tree without a trace. When the goatweed butterfly folds its wings above its back, it, too, fades seamlessly into the leaf litter.
Another example of camouflage is the mottled coloration of many birds, like the bobwhite and the whippoorwill. If they hold perfectly still, they are difficult to detect. It’s the same with fawns. The broken light-and-dark patterns of their infant spots and stripes make them hard to locate. The fact that they bear no detectable scent at this age has probably saved the life of many a fawn, since predators pass them by without even suspecting their presence.
The silvery color of fish, which is created by the overlapping of scales, is thought to help these animals mimic the mercury-like nature of moving water, allowing them to visually “disappear” against the current.
And like the chameleon, a number of creatures are able to change their color to avoid detection, both as defensive and offensive tactics. Several species of tree frogs change in order to blend into their surroundings, saving their hides for another day. Slender ocean kelpfish change from brown to green to match the color of the seaweed on which they feed. Likewise, prey animals like snowshoe hares and ptarmigans avoid their enemies by altering color from warm-weather brown to winter white, a feat that allows them to blend into both summer and winter landscapes. And some flower spiders are actually able to change color according to the hue of the blossom they are hiding on – in most cases, their prey never sees them until it’s too late.
Mimicry is also an important defense tool in nature. It’s not just color that makes for good camouflage – configuration plays a role, too. Walkingstick insects fool many predators since they look just like a glossy twig fallen from a tree – some are huge and brown, others are tiny and green, but all are jointed and very, very sticklike.
Viceroy butterflies, which so resemble vile-tasting monarchs that most birds avoid them, closely mimic their fellow insects’ fluttery flight pattern, too. Birds that might have made a meal of the viceroy look at its flight pattern and beautiful orange-and-black “stained-glass” wings and think “Monarch! Ptuie!”
Still other moths mimic wasps or bees and not only look like them but take on their characteristic motions as well. I once watched a bee moth feeding at a flower for fully five minutes before I realized what I was looking at! It was striped yellow and black just like a typical bee, and its wings were transparent, instead of sporting the usual mothlike covering of scales. Most interesting, however, was the fact that it had developed actions that just matched those of a large bumblebee as it hovered near the flower’s nectar. And bees, with their protective stingers, are far less likely to wind up as food for a hungry bird than a defenseless moth would.
It’s the same with ant-shaped insects. Most birds and other predators know that ants are protected by their ability to bite and to squirt acid at their attackers. If a creature such as a spider, mantis, grasshopper, or bug can pull off the masquerade, they are presumably safe. Not all use this as a defense tactic, though. The ant-mimic jumping spider mingles “harmlessly” with the ants it wishes to eat – right up until the moment it pounces.
Offensive tactics often come into play in the world of mimicry. The alligator snapping turtle has a wormlike tongue, which it uses to lure unsuspecting prey fish in search of a meal. The naive fish swim after the pink “worm” and find themselves the snapper’s dinner instead. Poisonous sea urchins may look like innocent plants to some – but woe to the fish that swims to one. Tentacles close in a deadly embrace.
Some tactics are quite obviously defensive. Puss moth caterpillars are equipped with a fearsome face on their tails, which works to scare off their enemies; they also have two long whiplike appendages they wave aggressively to further discourage would-be predators. Many adult moths, like the io and the polyphemus, have startlingly realistic eyespots on their wings that appear owl-like to hungry birds when they open their wings suddenly they create a kind of a visual boo! It’s an effective tactic; I’ve watched many a bird change its mind in a hurry when faced with an io’s dark, staring “eyes.” It’s a natural safeguard shared by a number of silk moths and other insects.
Many fish, like the brilliantly colored butterfly fish, also have eyelike markings on their tails – in this case, to direct predators to a less-vulnerable part of their anatomy. The butterfly fish also has a dark eye stripe that conceals its actual eyes. In this case it’s not so much a scare tactic as a defense mechanism, and one shared by many other creatures, including butterflies, which often have eyelike markings on their wings to direct attacks away from their vulnerable heads.
Another curious defense mechanism involves one species of skink. This insect-loving lizard protects itself by suddenly sticking out a very large, very blue tongue and hissing. The frilled-neck lizard, too, looks perfectly innocent as it goes about its business, apparently unprepared for attack. Threaten this creature, though, and it stands erect on hind legs and opens its wide, bright-colored “collar” in an impressive – and aggressive – display: “Don’t mess with me!” To complete its display, this Australian reptile waves its long, whiplike tail, hisses, and opens its wide, yellow-lined mouth. Quite often this instant transformation is enough to startle any predators and allow the lizard time to get away.
Similarly, ocean-dwelling puffer-fish manage to transform themselves from an apparently desirable meal to a complete impossibility by suddenly gulping in water when threatened and puffing themselves up into a bloated, spiny ball. With their spines fully extended, this saltwater fish becomes a difficult mouthful for many predators.
But even the family feline gets in on the act of deception – notice next time your cat is in a fight – or even a serious play session. It will fluff itself up to look as large and fearsome as possible, and even turn sideways to display as much bulk as it can. Like a pufferfish in action, Puss will appear daunting to its enemy, whether real or play. It is especially comical when the creature is as small and as seemingly helpless as a kitten – but here is nature’s own deceptiveness in action. And – it works!