Do you know the 4 strategies that wildlife uses to camouflage?

Fight or flight. That’s survival in the animal world. But what if you can’t fight? And what if you can’t flight? You have to hide. The ability to camouflage is an adaptation, and, just like other adaptations, it emerged through evolution. Individual animals with a genetic mutation for camouflage would survive to pass the genes down to their offspring; eventually, the trait would become part of the whole species’ genetic makeup. From bugs to birds to baby deer, here are a few camouflage strategies that you can spot—or not!—in cottage country.

How to blend in

The simplest way to hide is to disappear into your surroundings. (That’s why Batman dresses in all black.) Frogs, turtles, and snakes use this strategy. The spiny softshell turtle is a dull brown, so it can easily hide in the sand where it lives; the leopard frog’s green-and-black spotted skin lets it camouflage in its wetland habitat. The arboreal gray treefrog is a chameleon. It can alter its body colour by expanding and contracting pigment cells covered by a transparent layer of skin. The change isn’t instant (it takes about half an hour), and the frog can only go from green to shades of grey (not 50 shades; they’re not into that), but it’s still enough to allow the species to melt into various tree bark backgrounds. 

Snakes, too, are excellent hiders. Plenty of species are blotchy- skinned—the milksnake, for example—to blend into meadow grasses, rocky outcrops, or the forest floor. The smooth greensnake is a master of disguise. It’s skinny, emerald green, and, well, smooth-looking. How better to conceal yourself in the grass?

In the bird world, dull plumage is an advantage for species that are active at night—owls, nightjars such as the Eastern whippoorwill and the common nighthawk, and the American woodcock. Being able to blend into the surroundings in the daytime—a.k.a. resting time—is a huge benefit. Camouflage is also one reason many female birds have drab colouration compared to males. If you’re incubating eggs or tending to babies, you don’t want to draw attention to yourself.

An obvious form of camouflage is the brown-to-white colour coat changes that snowshoe hares and certain weasels—the least weasel, the long-tailed weasel, and the ermine—undergo with the changing seasons. These seasonal moults take several weeks, and they’re triggered by daylight hours, not by temperature or snow cover. In winter, the Arctic fox is especially good at hiding in plain sight. It’ll curl its compact body into a ball, wrap its bushy tail around itself, and tuck its head down. Is that a fox? Nah, it’s just a lump of snow.

Wild Profile: Meet the Arctic fox

How to disguise

If you want to hide, pretend to be something that you’re not—ideally something that is boring and unappealing to predators. The walkingstick insect is an example of this strategy. Who wants to eat a stick? Nobody. At least, no bug-eating predator. Similarly, plenty of insects disguise themselves as leaves: katydids, crickets, and grasshoppers, for instance. Most are various shades of green, yellow, or brown, and have leaf-like body shapes and leaf-like markings. Grasshoppers may be especially aware of their own ability to disguise; one 2020 research study showed that, when painted different colours, test grasshoppers then spent more time in a habitat that contrasted the least with their new body colour. Clever! Of course, grasshoppers are one of the earliest plant-eating insects to have evolved on this earth. After 250 million years, they probably know what they’re doing.

Wild Profile: Meet the conehead katydid

How to mimic

What’s better than disguising yourself as something boring? Disguising yourself as something scary. Or disgusting. Or both. Butterflies and moths, and their caterpillar offspring, are experts at this, thanks to their eyespot wing or body markings. The luna moth’s handful of spots—complete with “pupils”—are small, but still confusing and alarming to a predator. And the Northern pearly-eye butterfly has so many “eyes” (concentrated at the outer edges of its wings) that it might look disturbing to anybody. The tiger swallowtail butterfly, in larval form, looks like bird droppings. For obvious reasons, no predator wants to eat that stuff. Then, as they mature, the caterpillars turn green, with two brightly coloured false eyespots on the thorax. This transforms the caterpillar from a tasty target into a terrifying snake. 

Another common form of mimicry in the butterfly world is when one species looks similar to another unappetizing species. For example, the orange-and-black viceroy butterfly is almost indistinguishable from the orange-and-black monarch butterfly. Monarchs store powerful toxins in their bodies because of the milkweed they eat. Bird predators would rather avoid them—and they’d prefer to steer clear of the viceroys too. Better safe than poisoned!

How to trick the eye

A leopard can’t change its spots. And it wouldn’t want to: a spotted or striped coat is a form of camouflage for certain predator and prey mammals. Why? Spots and stripes are confusing to the eye. Not to us, of course. But we’re smart enough to understand what we’re looking at. For an animal, spots or stripes work as trickery because they make it difficult to discern the target’s body shape and separate it from its background. Certain baby animals are born with spotted coats that eventually fade to a solid colour—cougar kittens, for example, and white-tailed deer fawns. A mother deer leaves her baby for extended periods of time during the day, usually under a tree, where the spots help the six-pound, weak and wobbly creature blend into the forest floor. It’s a better strategy than hovering over the newborn; that would draw predator attention. Baby deer lose their spots after a few months. By then, they don’t need to rely only on hiding to survive. They can run.

This article was originally published in the August 2023 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

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