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Animals that Hide : The Science of Mimicry and Camouflage

Mohan is a family physician, film and TV aficionado, a keen bibliophile and an eclectic scribbler.

animals-that-hide-the-science-of-mimicry-and-camouflage

In this hub...

  • We look at how nature has helped animals to disguise themselves for protection and predatory spells
  • We look at the difference between Mimicry and Camouflage
  • We look at various types of Camouflage
  • We look at the various types and theories of Mimicry
  • Along the way we look at some awesome pictures!

Come Hide with Me...

When Animals play hide and seek, they do it with style and resourcefulness. Whether blending imperceptibly into the background, disguising themselves as something else or pretending to be another species altogether, they are the masters of their habitat.

After all they've had millions of years of assistance in nature's own laboratory of selective evolution. In their world, where superior predators prevail and food source is fiercely competed, it is a matter of simply Hide - or die!

In the millions of years of survival games, the victors are those who have masterfully blended, mimicked and camouflaged themselves against discovery by an aggressor.

The breathtaking variety of animals that have become masters of disguise makes for a wonderful tour for those of you who are as fascinated by these biological curiosities as I am.

So, here dear reader, for your delectation, the Science of Mimicry and Camouflage ( and as a bonus - Aposematism).

Now You see me, now you don't - An Owl in its natural habitat

Now You see me, now you don't - An Owl in its natural habitat

Definitions and Differences

In evolutionary biology, the survival of the species is decided by not just being the fittest but by being able to hide effectively. Species have evolved this art of obfuscation through a variety of devices. These are broadly classified as Camouflage, Mimicry and Aposematism.

Camouflage is the use of physical shape, structure, coloration or illumination in making animals hard to see ( hiding) or hard to spot ( disguising).

The similarity of one species to another in appearance, behaviour, scent, sound or location for an evolutionary advantage is termed Mimicry.

Aposematism is perhaps the opposite of these two acts. Here the animal proudly broadcasts and advertises its presence but only as a warning by using high coloration, scent, movement or other characteristics as an anti-predator adaptations. Here the predator will be warned off the potential danger of attempting to eat such an organism due to high toxicity or danger.


The Florida Crab spider hiding in a flower

The Florida Crab spider hiding in a flower

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

When we see leaf-eating insects green, and bark-feeders mottled-grey; the alpine ptarmigan white in winter, the red-grouse the colour of heather, and the black-grouse that of peaty earth, we must believe that these tints are of service to these birds and insects in preserving them from danger... Hence I can see no reason to doubt that natural selection might be most effective in giving the proper colour to each kind of grouse, and in keeping that colour, when once acquired, true and constant.

Charles Darwin

Camouflage

The earliest mention of Camouflage is from ancient Greece, in Aristotle's Historia Animalium where colour changing properties of animals are mentioned. His take on the subject was around how animals use colour change as a way of hiding and also for signalling.

Charles Darwin drew upon his observations during his voyage of discovery and covered the subject of camouflage in his The Origin of Species.

English biologist Edward Bagnall Coulton studied camouflage extensively and came up with categories such as 'special protective resemblance' where an animal hides by resembling another object or colour and 'general aggressive resemblance' where a predator hides with a view to approaching its prey stealthily.

We can also divide Camouflage as:

'Crypsis' - hiding by using to colouration, patterns and shading

and

'Mimesis' where the animal hides by resembling another object


Crypsis

The Animal colour and shading can be 'concealing' as in blending with the background like polar bears or snow hares, grasshoppers, owls etc. In the case of Jellyfish they use their transparency to conceal themselves in water.

The coloration and pattern can also be 'disruptive' as in confusing the predator like a herd of zebras where it is difficult to identify a single animal. Schools of fish, Leopard spots, Patterns of shading in Pandas all are types of disruptive coloration

Types of Camouflage

Types of CamouflageCategoryExamples

Color Matching

Protective

Tree Frog

Disruptive Coloration

Aggressive

Leopard

Protective

Zebra

Seasonal

Protective

Snow Hare

Aggresssive

Polar Bear

Countershading: for predators from above and below

Protective

Penguins

Counterillumination

Protective

Sparkling Squid

Transparency

Protective

Glass frog, Jellyfish

Reflection

Protective

Pilchard

Self Decoration

Protective

Decorator Crab

Concealment shape

Protective

Flying Lizard

Irregular outline

Protective

Leafy Sea dragon, Comma Butterfly

Feature disruption

Protective

Eyestripe fish

Distraction

Protective

Butterflyfish

Active Camouflage

Protective/Aggressive

Chameleon

Mimicry

The evolution of one species that develop similarities to another for protective, aggressive or sexual advantage is called Mimicry. The similarity can be in appearance, sound, smell, feel or location.

Mimics are group of organisms that develop these similarities to another group which from the Models for the perceived characteristics. There is an overlap in Camouflage with the presence of Mimesis where the organism resembles something inanimate like a leaf or a twig.

Mimicry usually conveys a survival advantage as the organisms often mimic a more aggressive or toxic species to ward off potential predators who are fooled by the mimicry and shared characteristics.

Type of MimicryDescription

 

 

Defensive

The organism deceives its predators by taking on similarities to a another species that are harmful to the predator. There are many types of defensive mimicry ( Batesian, Müllerian, Mertensian and Wassmanian)

Aggressive

Here the predators turn the table by taking on characteristics of the prey thus avoiding detection and getting close to their prey

Reproductive

Here organisms and plants may resemble another for a reproductive or pollinatory advantage

Automimicry

Where one part of the organism resembles another to fool the predator and to give an escape advantage

 Monarch and Viceroy butterflies

Monarch and Viceroy butterflies

The Great Pretenders

There are many fascinating examples of Mimicry. Under the banner of Defensive Mimicry we have several harmless species such as Consul fabius and Eresia eunice imitating the unpalatable Heliconius butterflies to warn off predators. This phenomenon was observed by the English naturalist Henry Walter Bates and is named after him as Batesian mimicry.

Strangely there are some species that are equally harmful but mimic each other's attribute for a shared protective advantage - the equally bad tasting Viceroy and Monarch butterflies share patterns and coloration. This was first described by the German naturalist Fritz Müller and is called Mullerian mimicry .

Mertensian mimicry is where a more dangerous species mimics a relatively harmless one - this has been the theory behind Coral snakes sharing the coloration of harmless milk snakes for an unclear advantage while Wassmanian mimicry is where a mimic resembles another member of its own family such as within termite colonies and ant colonies.


The female Photinus firefly who attracts the male of another species by mimicking the light flash signals.

The female Photinus firefly who attracts the male of another species by mimicking the light flash signals.

Femme Fatale

Female fireflies attract their mates by flashing (careful!) a unique set of signals that are specific to their species. In a stunning case of misdirection the females from the Photinus species mimic the signals of the females from Photuris and attract the unsuspecting male. The males hastily arrive expecting some nookie but instead they get eaten alive.

The various guises of Thaumoctopus Mimicus

The various guises of Thaumoctopus Mimicus

The Undersea Olivier

In a sheer case of thespian splendour, there is a species of Cephalopods called the Mimic Octopus ( Thaumoctopus Mimictus) that displays all manner of forms ( it manages to look like a set of eels, flatfish, sea sponge and also hides in the sea floor ) to avoid detection and to advance on it prey and to blend with the surroundings. If there was an Oscar for Octopus acting, this is the one that will sweep the board.

It also displays aggressive colouration when threatened. It really is a master of Mimicry and camouflage.

A solitary male bee engaged in pseudocopulation with an Orphrys wild orchid.

A solitary male bee engaged in pseudocopulation with an Orphrys wild orchid.

Reproductive Mimicry

Or how a flower fools a wasp into having sex!

Wild orchids have evolved into fooling their pollinators into thinking they are going to get a sexual reward. The flowers have evolved to resemble a female wasp in its shape, coloration, fur and even scent.

The male wasp lands and copulates with what he thinks is a female wasp but is indeed the orchid flower. By the time the deed is done it is too late to realise what has happened - he is covered in pollen and he flies of only to repeat the cycle all over again, helping the cunning little orchid to pollinate and reproduce.

The wonderful David Attenborough narrates this video where there is a whole scrum of sex crazed wasps attempting to have sex with flowers!

This phenomenon is also known as Pseudocopulation.


Automimicry

There are others that fool predators by modifications to parts of their body. The commonest of these is to deceive a predator into thinking that the organisms head is elsewhere. False eye patterns are both threatening and rewarding. This defensive mimicry saves lives when the distracted predator avoids the species by mistaking them to be something else. Predators often fixate on the eyes of their prey to determine direction and movement. By offering false eye patterns the prey is able to buy precious time to escape by wrong footing the villainous predator.


Aposematism

From the highly poisonous frogs in the rainforest to the smelly skunk, animals also play fair by warning the predators off using various cues to inform the enemies of their toxicity and unpalatability. The predators know to avoid such animals for fear of a quick and painful death. This phenomenon of warning signals (mainly coloration) is called Aposematism. ( literally means go away signal) The Predators have an innate avoidance of such species due to evolutionary memory.

The word was coined by naturalist Edward B Poulton in his work The Colours of Animals.

Aposematic signals are highly conspicuous, memorable and easy to learn for the wary predator. The link to unpleasantness of taste, toxicity or smell are learnt quickly and become second nature to the predator, which includes us humans.


The Art of Deception

The infinite variety of survival tactics using camouflage and mimicry is astonishing. In nature's theatre, life finds so many ways to cling on to the surface of our Earth.

Millions of years of mutation and evolution has conveyed concealment benefits to enable the species to thrive unnoticed. For each one of these species, one can't imagine how many generations perished, until life found a way to live on.

Now humanity is learning the art of camouflage and mimicry from these nature's teachers.

And there are so many lessons to learn.


© Mohan Kumar 2013

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Thank You!

Thank you so much for reading this hub. Please do leave some comments and feedback below. And do vote as appropriate!

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Appreciate your time and interest, dear reader.

Do come again.

Docmo

Now you see me...

Now you see me...

Comments

Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on June 25, 2017:

Thank you so much for your comment and readership!

Mike and Dorothy McKenney from United States on June 20, 2017:

Fascinating article. Thank you so much for it. I will be following you and checking back on your past articles. You are a great writer.

Amanda Littlejohn on January 18, 2014:

Amazing hub - and the photos you've collected here are AWESOME!

Where did you find them?

Once more I'm in awe of nature and all her wonders. Thank you for sharing.

Mike Robbers from London on November 24, 2013:

@ Docmo very beautiful hub, i was staring at those unbelievable pictures for an hour... It was also very informative,congrats!

Voted up!

Mary Craig from New York on November 20, 2013:

Amazing! Yes we took a look and learned but I have to say the pictures you painstaking chose are truly awesome.

This is a very informative hub, obviously we don't know as much as we think we do about so many insects and animals, but thanks to you now I know a bit more!

Voted up, useful, awesome, beautiful, interesting and shared.

Dianna Mendez on November 19, 2013:

Living in Florida the lizards are always surprising one as they walk by them. They blend in with everything. They are artists at changing color to match whatever they are resting upon. I love this clever post! Voted up and across.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on November 17, 2013:

This hub is fascinating and you must have done a lot of research to have such a big variety of nature's species. I learned several new things, and it makes me really appreciate the variety of species in nature.

Esther Shamsunder from Bangalore,India on November 15, 2013:

Simply super! Our God is so creative! Thanks for these stunning pictures and information,Docmo,better than any encyclopedia. This hub deserves to be part of high school curriculum.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on November 15, 2013:

Dear Mohan - This is one of your best for me. You already know I am fascinated by weird/strange animals so these specimens you have described are of particular interest to me.

We seem to have been thinking along similar lines when you described Aposematism and featured the Poisonous Brazilian Frog as an example. Recently, I wrote about 'Weird Animals - the Blue Jeans Poison Dart Frog' and that clever little one-inch creature, like your example, uses its bright coloration to advertise its poison to predators.

Aren't these creatures special? Thanks for this treat which I have bookmarked and voted Up.

Linda Bilyeu from Orlando, FL on November 15, 2013:

Hey Doc, I don't like how the slithering, sneaky snake hides and startles me when I mow the lawn. Not fun! I do like your informative hub and zebra photo! :)

Andrew Spacey from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK on November 15, 2013:

I enjoyed this informative piece of work. A myriad disguises and outfits to secure survival - Mother Nature never fails to inspire!

Votes for the research and presentation.

Vijayarani on November 14, 2013:

Mohan, this is the best of yours. You are giving Navarasam to your readers!

Daisy Mariposa from Orange County (Southern California) on November 14, 2013:

Mohan,

What a fascinating article! I love reading Hubs from which I learn something new, and I have with this one.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on November 14, 2013:

The animal world is very interesting. We find some have built-in protective geer, how cool that is! I always love reading your hubs, very informative, i learn something new each time you publish. Voted up and sharing...