Camouflage, explained

Camouflage is complicated. It comes in multiple styles, and some animals use more than one to fool predators.

Camouflage, also known as cryptic coloration, isn’t just for soldiers in the military; it’s also common among animals, which use it to blend in with their surroundings, ultimately making them invisible to potential attackers.

Camouflage tactics

There are different types of camouflage, and some animals use more than one kind. One of the most common tactics is background matching. It could be as simple as a fox’s white fur matching the color of the Arctic tundra, or as complex as a leaf insect mimicking the movements of an actual leaf.

Another tactic is disruptive coloration, when animals disguise their identification and location through color patterns. For example, the owl butterfly has what looks like owl eyes on its wings, making predators think they are staring at an owl’s face instead of the backside of a butterfly.

Rather than hiding their identities, some organisms, like the monarch butterfly, use warning coloration, also known as aposematism, to signal to predators that they pack a toxic punch.

Mimicry is another useful tactic. For example, the nonvenomous scarlet king snake mimics the color patterns of a deadly coral snake as a way to avoid danger.

Countershading is a tactic used by animals with a dark top half and a light lower half. When a shark, for example, is seen from above, it blends in with the darker ocean below, becoming invisible to fishers and swimmers. Prey fish also may not notice sharks when looking at them from below; the lighter side of the shark’s body blends in with the surface water.

Eastern Screech Owl. Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia
Eastern Screech Owl. Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia
Photograph by Graham McGeorge, National Geographic Your Shot

Olfactory camouflage involves smell instead of color. Animals can cover up their own smell or mask themselves in another species’ scent to avoid predators. For example, the California ground squirrel chews up rattlesnake skin into a paste and applies it to its tail to discourage and confuse rattlesnakes.

What determines a camouflage tactic?

An animal’s camouflage tactic depends on a few factors. For instance, animals with fur use different camouflage tactics than those with feathers and scales, since fur takes weeks or months to grow and change color, while scales and feathers can shed and change colors quickly.

Creatures that live in groups have different tactics from those that are solitary. For example, the black-and-white stripes of a zebra herd may create a camouflage that can confuse predators.

Finally, a predator’s behavior or physical traits will help determine the method of camouflage. If the predator is colorblind, for instance, the prey does not have to blend in with its background.

How is camouflage created?

There are two ways to create camouflage: with pigments and with physical structures.

Some animals, like octopuses, have biochromes, microscopic pigments that absorb and reflect light to change the actual color of the animal. Others, like polar bears, have physical structures in their hairs that work like prisms, scattering light of all colors, which we see as white.

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