Hiding in plain sight - the art of camouflage

Andy Karran

Whether to deceive their prey or to avoid becoming lunch themselves, our Senior Conservation Ecologist, Andy Karran, shows us some of the amazing ways that animals have evolved to use camouflage to their advantage.

It’s a dangerous place out there in the wild, so our wildlife has had to develop many fantastic adaptations to survive.

Some animals use great speed, others the cover of darkness. Some find safety in numbers whilst others find retreating into refuges is the way to increase their chances of survival. However, not all animals can be quick and there is always likely to be a predator that is quicker; and if they want to complete their life-cycles and find food then they need to get out there into the wide world.

If you can do this but remain undetected then you will be successful and this is why camouflage has evolved so many times. Given the pressure of natural selection this has been fine-tuned over many, many generations to produce incredible adaptations. It should also be remembered that camouflage is not only for an animal’s protection, it can also be of great importance to predators, allowing them to get close to their prey without being detected.  

When we think of camouflage it is likely we think of something being the same colour as its surroundings but there is a bit more to it than that. Camouflage can actually be divided into four different types:

  • Concealing colouration – where an animal hides itself against a background of the same colour.
  • Disruptive colouration – where an animal has patterns, typically stripes or spots, that break up their outline so it is less noticeable against the background.
  • Disguise – blending in with the background or surroundings by looking like another object.
  • Mimicry – being in full view but pretending to be something that is less vulnerable to predation i.e. something bad tasting or dangerous.

Here in Wales, there are many great examples of camouflage. We will look at some of the more impressive ones and ones you could go out and find for yourselves, although spotting them will obviously not be that straightforward!

Concealing Colouration

This is the most common form of camouflage and many animals adopt it to some degree or other. Many caterpillars that eat leaves are green to make them harder for foraging birds to see. Many female birds, like the female eider, are more muted in their colours than the gaudy males, usually in shades of brown that make them far less obvious when sat on the nest.

Female eider duck

Andy Karran

Bittern camouflaged in reedbed

Andy Karran

The Bittern is perfectly plumaged for its secretive life in a reedbed. This also helps them to avoid predation.

Plaice camouflaged with riverbed

Andy Karran

For species such as Plaice (a flatfish), the colouration has a dual purpose, serving both as protection against predation and also allowing them to ambush smaller prey.

Crab spider on Oxeye daisy

Andy Karran

You are probably aware of the Chameleon’s amazing ability to change colour to match its surroundings. We don’t have anything quite so spectacular here but the Crab Spiders in our gardens are able to change their colour to match the flowers they sit on to ambush unfortunate insects that visit the flowers. This likely affords them some protection from predation also.

Disruptive Colouration

Probably best known in species such as Tigers and Zebras, we have animals here that use disruptive colouration too, just on a more modest scale. The colouration of Adders gives some basic camouflage but the distinctive zig-zag pattern further enhances the camouflage by disrupting their outline. Conversely however, there is a school of thought that suggests that the zig-zags are a warning to predators so the Adder wants you to see them!

Adder

Andy Karran

Insects are best at disguise and generally use it to escape predation.

Buff-tip moth camouflaged on twig

Andy Karran

The Buff-tip Moth looks like a snapped Birch twig.

Purple thorn moth caterpillar camouflaged on twig

Andy Karran

The Purple Thorn caterpillar is one of many that look just like a twig, with added knobbly bits for greater effect.

Comma butterfly underwing

Andy Karran

The Comma butterfly looks like a tatty, dead leaf when if folds its wings.

Spider crab using seaweed for camouflage

Andy Karran

Some creatures can even make their own disguise such as the Spider Crabs that attach little bits of seaweed to themselves so that they look like the surrounding algae.

Mimicry

This camouflage is best illustrated in Batesian Mimicry, where a harmless species has evolved to be of similar appearance to a dangerous or foul-tasting species so that predators avoid them. Hoverflies illustrate this perfectly. Many of them have yellow and black stripes to give the appearance of a stinging Wasp and others are very convincing Bumblebee mimics.   

I would recommend that you get out there and marvel at the great camouflage Gwent’s wildlife has to offer, however be prepared not to notice anything at all!