Camouflage is a common and effective defence or stealth mechanism. It is used by many animals to blend into their surroundings and avoid detection by predators or prey. Some animals have evolved the ability to change color, shape, or texture to match their surroundings, while others have developed patterns that break up their outline and make them harder to spot.
Camouflage can serve a variety of purposes for different animals. Some species use it to avoid being eaten by predators, while others use it to sneak up on prey or to hide from potential threats. For some animals, camouflage also plays a role in mating and social behavior, allowing them to blend in and go unnoticed while observing or attracting mates. Or to regulate temperature in harsh environments.
In this post, we’ll take a closer look at some of the different animals that camouflage, how they do it, and why.
15 Animals That Camouflage
Chameleon (Family: Chamaeleonidae)
From the minute baby chameleons are born, there are predators only happy to make a meal out of them. They don’t hang about on the ground for long. Their instincts are to get off the ground or into the trees and this is usually their first port of call. This might protect them from ground predators, but they are still vulnerable to the threat from above. Two of the biggest predators are the Serpent-Eagle and the Banded Kestrel. These birds of prey feed on chameleons more than any other animal.
With the many threats they face, it’s important for them to have good defences, and the best defence they have is the ability to change color and camouflage. Across the range of species they can do this in a variety of ways. Some, alter the brightness of their skin, taking on darker or lighter hues. Others can change their color entirely.
They don’t only use their color change facilities for camouflage, but also as a means of social signalling, such as to indicate aggression or submission to other chameleons. The color change is also a thermic reaction to temperature and other environmental conditions.
Some other lizards, like the horny toad for example, camouflage too. But none quite as effectively as the chameleon.
Stick Insects (Order: Phasmatodea)
Stick insects are insects in the order ‘Phasmatodea’ and are represented by species on every content except Antarctica. The order gets its name from the Greek ‘phasma‘, which translates as ‘apparition’ or ‘phantom’, and refers to their ability to take on the resemblance of plants rather than insects.
It is this mimicry, and natural camouflage that makes them difficult for predators to see. Allowing them to evade detection right in the face of danger. Not all phasmids look like sticks, some look like leaves but in either case, the body usually has ridges that resemble leaf veins or bark to complete the camouflage.
Across the range of species, their size and appearance can differ greatly. Stick insects can be as small as 1.5 cm (0.6 in) to as large as 63 cm (25 in) in length. The largest of all species can weigh as much as 65 g, and females are usually larger than males.
Scorpionfish (Order: Scorpaenidae)
There are 454 species of scorpionfish across 65 genera in the order of Scorpaenidae. Some of these fish are found in the Atlantic Ocean, but most are in the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean. They are amongst some of the most peculiar looking and ugly fish around the world.
Some scorpionfishes are renowned for being amongst the most venomous fish in the world, and rather than using camouflage to evade predation, they use it to lure in prey for an easy meal. Typically these fish have a flat or compressed body, with spines and ridges and it is in these spines that their venom is housed.
Many of these fish are ambush predators, laying in wait in the bottom of the sea floor, covered in sediment and debris, waiting to strike at any passing prey. Others have coloration that blends them into their background, while there are some, such as ‘Scorpaenopsis diabolus‘ that exhibit biofluorescence that may also assist with camouflage.
Flower Mantis (Order: Mantodea)
Flower mantis are represented by many different species across several different genera in the order Mantodea. These insects get their name from the specific type of camouflage that they use. They are all known to use a form of ‘aggressive mimicry’ where they have developed specific colorations and behaviors that enable them to mimic flowers within their habitats.
These insects use their aggressive mimicry both as a defensive mechanism, and to attract their prey. They will position themselves on or within a flower and remain still, taking on the appearance of the flower itself. When a prey insect approaches, the flower mantis will strike and take its meal. In some cases the flower mantis can also absorb UV light in the same way that the flower would that they are copying. This adds another layer to their predatory mimicry.
A bit part of the flower mantis diet, are pollinator insects like wasps and bees. These are the prey that will visit flowers often, and can be tricked by the mimicry. Because of their reliance on imitating these flowers to provide food and camouflage, flower mantis species are diurnal insects.
Orange Oakleaf (Kallima inachus)
On the upper portion of their wings, these butterflies have vibrant symmetrical colors of blue into amber and a black apex. On the underside of the wings, they have the appearance of an old, dried leaf. They have darkened veins, that resemble the veins of a leaf, and a variety of brown tones and spots that give an incredible representation of this type of camouflage.
The orange oakleaf are hunted by many types of bird, and to evade their predators they will start to fly erratically and descend into foliage. Once in the presence of cover they will land and become very still, with their wings folded up to display their camouflage underside.
Nightjar (Family: Caprimulgidae)
Nightjars, are medium sized birds of the family Caprimulgidae, which is comprised of three different subfamilies. They can be either crepuscular or nocturnal depending on the species and on their habitat. They can be found on every continent except Antarctica, but they are also ascent from the northern polar regions in Russia and North America, as well as some island groups including New Zealand. Most of the known 89 species live in the ‘old world’.
Nightjars have adapted some behaviour as well as a distinctive plumage that help them to camouflage in the wild. They can often be hard to spot in their ground nests because their soft coat feathering is colored to resemble bark, ground debris or leaves. They blend into the background. When perched on a branch they are also known to perch along rather than across the branch, so facing the direction that the branch is reaching. This can make it difficult to spot movement and helps to keep them safe from predators when resting through the day.
Crab Spider (Family: Thomisidae)
Crab Spiders are the name given to the 2,100 species of spider of the 170 genera within the family Thomisidae. All of the spiders in the is family are ambush predators rather than web spinners, and they apply many different camouflage skills to secure their prey. They are called crab spiders because of their shape, particularly of their legs, and the way they move. They have two front legs that are usually longer, stronger and more sturdy than the rest of the legs.
Some species, such as the Misumena vatia and Thomisus spectabilis exhibit the ability to change their color to mimic the flower they are sitting on. This change in color takes place over a few days, but allows them to camouflage skilfully to avoid detection and ambush their prey.
Some species are able to mimic bird droppings, and will sit out in the open amongst leaves and bark where they wait in ambush. These spiders are exceptional ambushers, and are capable of devouring prey like butterflies, much larger than themselves.
Snapping Turtle (Family: Chelydridae)
Snapping turtles, are members of the family Chelydridae, of which there are two extant generae – Chelydra and Macrochelys. The largest species of snapping turtle, the Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) is known to use aggressive mimicry to lure and catch their prey.
Their massive shells are often covered in algae, and they have yellow patterns around the eyes that help to keep it camouflaged. They also have measures of camouflage on the inside of their mouths, with a worm-shaped appendage on the tip of their tongue that they use to lure in fish with the promise of a meal. Once close enough, the snapping turtle will lunge and take the fish.
Even as baby snapping turtles, these large fresh water reptiles have a bad reputation for having a nasty bite. In most cases, this is an exaggeration, but with the Alligator Snapping Turtle, the reputation is well earned. They can be aggressive and are likely to lunge rather than retreat.
Leafy Seadragon (Phycodurus eques)
The Leafy Seadragon is a type of dragonfish that is found in the waters off the south and west of Australia. They are the only species within the genus Phycodurus. They are known for their long, leaf-like appendages, which they use to camouflage themselves in the seaweed.
These small fish grow lobes of skin that give it the illusion of appearing like seaweed. They complete this illusion with their very slow, drifting or floating motion, which is powered by their small pectoral and dorsal fins. Depending on a range of biological and environmental factors, some leafy seadragons may also be able to chance color to blend into their environment.
The leafy seadragon eats a diet of small crustaceans, but does not seem to use its camouflage to aid with this, using it purely as a form of passive defence. They are solitary animals other than when mating, and they are independent immediately after they are born.
Seahorse (Genus: Hippocampus)
There are 46 different species of seahorse, in the genus Hippocampus which can be found in warm shallow waters all over the world. The head of the seahorse resembles a horses head and its body has an elongated tail covered by about 50 rectangular bony plates.
The seahorse is a true fish, with a dorsal fin located on the lower body and pectoral fins located on the head near their gills. Some species of seahorse are partly transparent, with exceptional camouflage. They are often not spotted in aquariums despite being there and are also not often seen in pictures.
Like chameleons, seahorses can change color so they match their surroundings in the sea grass. This camouflage protects them from predators such as crabs although, with their bony armour, there are very few animals that can eat them anyway. They are very slow movers, so camouflage is their primary method of defence.
Leopard (Panthera pardus)
The Leopard (Panthera pardus) is one of the classical ‘big cats‘, and one of the five extant species in the genus Panthera. They are characterized by their striking fur of dark spots grouped in rosettes, that allow them to camouflage against their habitat.
Leopards are opportunistic hunters and this camouflage comes in handy for approaching their prey as closely as they can before pouncing. The spotty pattern that covers their coat, helps to camouflage them against dense vegetation with patchy shadows. Those individuals living in arid regions are a paler yellow in color to those living in forests and mountains, who are much darker and deep golden.
Where leopards are the only big cats in a territory, they are apex predators. But where their territory overlaps with lions, they can find themselves the target of the larger cat. In these cases, the leopard does not use it’s camouflage as a method of defence, it will run away rather than use its stealth.
Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis)
The Giraffe is one of two existing species in the family Giraffidae, but is the only member with its characteristically long neck and pattern. It is the tallest animal on Earth, and it’s range exists in local patches across Africa, from Chad to South Africa. There are 9 recognized subspecies across this range.
Along with their height, giraffes have an incredible array of adaptations. For example, their skin coloring provides excellent camouflage, as it has many different patches of variable size and color. This camouflage is particularly effective in the light and shade patterns of savannah woodlands. It is said that even from a few meters away if can be hard to spot a giraffe. This is important for calves, but as adults, they are ever watchful for predators and will use their physical size and advantage to fight rather than hide.
Arctic Hare (Lepus arcticus)
The Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus) is a species of hare found in the Arctic regions of North America and Greenland. This hare is well adapted to life in the harsh Arctic environment, and its white fur helps it to blend in with the snow and ice. They are burrowing animals, (which is rare for a hare), and will dig holes out of the snow for warmth and rest.
The Arctic hare has a thick coat of fur that provides excellent insulation in the cold climate, but it also serves as a form of camouflage. Seasonal moulting helps them to remain camouflaged throughout the year.
During the winter months, the hare’s coat turns completely white, which makes it nearly invisible in the snowy landscape. In the summer, the fur changes to a brownish-gray color, which helps the hare blend in with the rocks and tundra.
Camouflage is crucial for the Arctic hare’s survival, as it helps to protect these herbivores from predators such as wolves, foxes, and birds of prey. By blending in with the environment, the hare can avoid detection and increase its chances of escaping harm. Additionally, the Arctic hare has large hind feet, which help it to move quickly over the snow and ice. They can run at speeds up to 40 mph!
Arctic Fox (Vulpes lagopus)
The Arctic Fox, is a small species of fox native to areas within the Arctic Circle. It is sometimes also known as the Polar Fox, or the Snow Fox. These foxes have a thick, coat of fur which comes in two different shades. They can come in a ‘blue’ coat or a ‘white’ coat. In each case, the coat provides them with insulation in their harsh, cold environment, but those with the white coat also benefit from camouflage against their snowy environment.
Climate change is having a major impact on this species however, and on the advantage of their camouflaged coats. With snow cover receding the white coat doesn’t provide the cover in some areas as effectively as it once did. As these foxes are not as big or powerful as their rival cousins the red fox, they are losing ground to these invaders that are pushing further north as the climate warms.
Long-Eared Owl (Asio otus)
This species of owl is superbly camouflaged but can often be identified by their long, low hoots. They are nocturnal hunters that roost in dense foliage and hunt over open ground. When roosting or sitting silently in the trees, hunting, these owls are incredibly well camouflaged. They blend into the background with coloring that melts into the greens and browns of the tree cover that they prefer.
Long eared owls are important to their ecosystem. They help to control the populations of prey in the area. Their diet mainly consists of small rodents, especially voles, but they can adapt their prey depending on availability.