Most of us are familiar with the idea of camouflage. Everywhere you go, you can see people in “camo” clothing, hats, boots and jackets. This style is typically earth tone greens and browns in a variety of patterns that were originally designed for hunters or military personnel to blend into the natural environment. Regardless of the camo style, the idea is the same: blend into the environment so that it is more difficult to be seen and identified.
Humans did not invent this idea. Wildlife species from fish to polar bears use camouflage to hide in plain sight for a variety of reasons. The bottom line is that for wildlife the name of the game is survival and using a variety of camouflage strategies helps wild animals survive.
What wildlife use camouflage?
We tend to think animals use camouflage colors and patterns to hide from predators. Deer are brown and when they hold still they are very difficult to see. Fawns have white spots and when they are lying in dappled sunlight predators have a hard time seeing them. Not being seen is the first line of defense when you are trying not to be eaten.
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Predators use camouflage, too. They need to find prey to eat, and if predators blend into their natural environment it is more difficult for prey to see them coming. Not being seen is also the first line of offense when you are trying to find prey to eat.
Elements of camouflage
Lots of animals benefit from camouflage, and it stands to reason there are different types of camouflage strategies. The key to effective camouflage is the specific environment in which the animal lives. A white snowy owl will be obvious in green and brown vegetation, but it will be all but invisible in the snow.
Color is the element of camouflage we think of most. Color is so important that some wildlife change color to match their environment. Snowshoe hares and weasels are among the animals that turn white in the winter to blend into the snow. Cuttlefish can change their color depending on what environment they are in at the time.
Pattern is another element in camouflage, one that can be hard to appreciate until you have seen an animal in its’ natural environment. Think about nature. When you go to the forest or the desert or the bottom of the ocean is everything one color? Most natural environments are filled with an array of colors and shapes, from plants to rocks to shadows to sunlight. To blend in, many animals mimic the various patterns and shapes in their environment.
Tiger stripes look bright and bold when we see them close up at the zoo. But their natural environment is deep forest with dappled sunlight where their stripes make it difficult to see them.
Another element to camouflage in wildlife is behavior. Even if you have the color and pattern to blend into your environment, you need to use appropriate behavior to be truly camouflaged. This can mean staying still for some species. If the environment is still and you are the right color and pattern and you match the stillness of your environment, then you will be as camouflaged as you can be.
But what if your environment is moving? Many species mimic the movement of their natural environment in order to be even more camouflaged. American bitterns are herons that prowl in the reeds and cattails of wetlands. They are brownish with streaking and have a very pointed beak. When threatened they will point their beak straight up. Their color and pattern blend into the vegetation and their pointed beak is similar in shape to the reeds and cattail background. Then they sway slightly so that they look similar to the reeds swaying in the wind. They are the perfect combination of camouflage color, pattern and behavior.
The first step to really understanding camouflage is to be aware of the environment. What does the animal’s habitat look like? What are the colors? Is it one shade of brown or many shades of brown? What are the patterns? Are the edges of the vegetation straight, curved, round, fuzzy? Is it sunny or shady or both?
An easy thing to do is to head for the tiger exhibit at the zoo. If the tigers are on the green grass notice how bright they are. They are easy to spot and not camouflaged at all because green lawn is not similar to the tiger’s natural environment. Then try to spot the tigers that are out in the main exhibit. When they are lying still in the forest with all the trees and shrubs they are very hard to spot because that enclosure is more similar to their natural habitat. Also notice that they are easiest to spot when they move.
As you look at other animals in the zoo notice their color and pattern. Are they hard to see? Do you think it would be easier to see them if they were in a different habitat? Do they want to hide to avoid being eaten or to try to catch and eat another animal?
Another fun and easy thing to do is to grab some brightly colored and some less bright brown or green earth-toned colored t-shirts. Head to your local park and play a game of hide and seek. Then talk about how easy (or hard) it was to find each other in the different colors. Was it easier to spot someone in the yellow shirt than a brown shirt? Did you pick your hiding place to match your shirt color? Switch shirts and then play again to see if you can figure out the one that provides the best camouflage in your park environment. See if you can predict which shirt will be best camouflaged based on the colors, patterns and shapes of the park.
Here are some resources to help you explore the world of camouflage.
PBS Cat in the Hat-Exploring Animal Camouflage: www.pbs.org/parents/catinthehat/activity_exploring_animal_camouflage.html
Brainpop Educators-Camouflage Activities for Kids: educators.brainpop.com/lesson-plan/camouflage-activities-for-kids/
Monterey Bay Aquarium-Ray Hide and Seek: www.montereybayaquarium.org/education/classroom-resources/games-and-activities/ray-hide-and-seek
Ranger Rick-Fish Camouflage: www.nwf.org/Kids/Ranger-Rick/Animals/Fish/Fish-Camouflage.aspx