Masters of camouflage

Some animals stand out when it comes to blending in

| Story by Meghan McMahon |

12/10/2021

In the animal kingdom, it’s often eat or be eaten, so many species have developed some clever defense mechanisms to help keep them safe from predators.

Some of the most well-known are also the most effective. Take skunks, famous for their noxious-smelling spray. It seems to work, too, because few animals are known to eat skunks. Others are downright wacky, like the Texas horned lizard. These lizards can squirt blood from their eyes in an attempt to keep predators away. And don’t forget about opossums, which go to the drastic measure of pretending to be dead to save themselves from attack.

One of the less celebrated animal defense mechanisms is camouflage. Many animals rely on their coloring to help them avoid detection. In the animal kingdom, there are four types of camouflage: concealing coloration, disguise, disruptive coloration and mimicry, according to the Michigan State University Extension. Concealing coloration is when animals blend in with their surroundings, while disruptive coloration is when an animal has a pattern like spots or stripes that make it difficult to see its outline. Camouflage by disguise is when an animal looks like something else entirely to help it blend in. Mimicry is when a harmless animal looks similar to an animal that is poisonous or venomous to help it avoid predation. The most well-known example of mimicry is viceroy butterflies, which look very similar to monarchs — poisonous to many creatures because of the milkweed they eat.

Among the better-known animals that rely on camouflage are those that turn white in winter, like Arctic foxes. These foxes live in the Arctic tundra, and their fur changes color with the seasons, according to National Geographic. In the summer, they are brownish-gray in color, allowing them to blend in with the plants and rocks of the tundra. In the winter, however, they turn a stark white so they can escape detection in the snow.

A little closer to home is the snowshoe hare, which, similar to the Arctic fox, changes color throughout the year to better blend in with its surroundings, according to the National Wildlife Federation. Snowshoe hares live in parts of the Unites States, including the Rocky Mountains, the Appalachian Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, New England and parts of Michigan, Minnesota and Montana. In the winter, snowshoe hares are white, helping them blend in with their snowy environs. During the warmer times of the year, they are a reddish-brown color, better matching the rocks and dirt in their habitat.

Here’s a look at some of the animals closer to home that stand out for blending in.

Brown creeper

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Many songbirds seem designed to stand out against a canopy of trees. Take the scarlet tanager and northern cardinal, both of which are hard to miss with their bright red plumage. Or blue jays, which are similarly easy to spot. But not so with the brown creeper, which blends in almost perfectly with tree bark.

These small, sparrow-sized birds have mottled brown backs and heads, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This allows them to remain inconspicuous while doing what they spend most of their time doing — meandering up and down tree trunks looking for insects to eat.

So good is their camouflage that it’s often easier to identify a brown creeper by its song than by scouring tree trunks in hopes of catching a glimpse of it moving around. Only the male birds sing, but it’s a high, sweet-sounding song, sometimes said to sound like they are calling out “trees, trees beautiful trees.”

Owls

(Photo via Shutterstock)

While many songbirds seem to stand out in their surroundings, many owls seem designed to blend in. Several of the owls that populate our forests are difficult to see in even the best of circumstances, and not just because they are nocturnal.

Great horned owls are mostly nocturnal, but even by day these large owls are difficult to spot thanks to their barred brown, gray, black and white markings that help them blend in well in their forested habitat. Even those ear tufts, which aren’t ears or horns, help owls camouflage themselves, The Spruce reports.

Eastern screech owls are also masters of camouflage, both because their markings help them blend in with the trees and because they often tuck themselves into small tree cavities, peeking just their heads out on a sunny day, the Cornell Lab reports.

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR YOUTUBE CHANNEL

Snowy owls also utilize camouflage, but only in winter. Unlike Arctic foxes and snowshoe hares, snowy owls are white all year. They spend their summers in the tundra in far northern Canada and then head south to other parts of Canada and the northern United States, sometimes traveling as far south as southern Illinois. During the winter, their nearly all-white plumage helps them blend in with their often snowy environs, according to the National Audubon Society.

Bitterns

(Photo courtesy of Carl Molano)

Both American bitterns and least bitterns are wading birds, and their markings make it difficult to see them among the tall grasses and reeds along the water’s edge where they like to hang out. These bitterns eat aquatic animals and, while hunting, they stand still at the edge of the water, among the vegetation, and wait, then jab their bills into their catch, according to Cornell Lab.

Both American bitterns and least bitterns have streaked breasts that help them blend in, but American bitterns have the better camouflage of the two. The longs streaks on their breasts spread upward to their necks, making them difficult to discern from the marshy vegetation where they stalk their prey. While their coloring certainly helps them blend in, they are also difficult to notice along the water’s edge because of their ability to stand still for so long.

Walking sticks

(Photo via Shutterstock)

You could be looking right at a walking stick and never know it because these insects are cleverly disguised, blending right in with the plants they live on. These bugs are so well camouflaged that they actually look like sticks with legs, and even their legs look like sticks.

The world is home to more than 3,000 species of walking sticks, and each has camouflage designed for their specific habitats, according to the San Diego Zoo. Most are green or brown, but walking sticks can also be gray, black or even blue, depending on what they need to blend in with.

As good as their camouflage may be, walking sticks are preyed on by some creatures. To help them from becoming another animal’s meal, many walking sticks have developed other defense mechanisms as well. Some can emit a bad-smelling substance to keep predators away. Others flash their wings as a warning to predators, and still others can use their wings to help them quickly drop to the ground to escape danger.

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR YOUTUBE CHANNEL

Katydids

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Of the more than 6,000 species of katydids in the world, most are green, which is useful for blending in with the foliage on the plants where they live, according to University of Wisconsin Horticulture Division of Extension.

In addition to their green color, katydids often have wings that are shaped like leaves, another feature that helps disguise them and avoid being eaten. A condition called erythrism affects about 1 in 500 katydids, causing them to be pink instead of green. In nature, this is not beneficial to the insects because they lose their ability to blend in and are more likely to be predated, according to the University of Wisconsin.

Among insects, it’s not just katydids and walking sticks that stand out at blending in. The world of insects is actually full of masters of camouflage. Take the dead leaf butterfly, which looks like — you guessed it — a dead leaf, making it difficult to spot in its typical habitat, Treehugger reports. The orchid mantis looks shockingly like part of the flower from an orchid plant, and the sand grasshopper almost perfectly blends in with the sandy soils where it lives.

Weasels

(Photo via Shutterstock)

A few mammals we see locally, like white-tailed deer, use concealing coloration and disruptive coloration to an extent to help them blend into their environment, but weasels are one that take it to another level. Like Arctic foxes and snowshoe hares, some species of weasels change color during the year to help them escape detection.

In the summer, the back, sides, tail and head of least weasels and long-tailed weasels — the only weasel species that live in Illinois — are a reddish-brown color, while their underparts are white, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. In the winter, however, many weasels turn fully white to better match their sometimes snowy habitat. During spring and fall, the weasels can have a mix of white and reddish-brown fur as the color transformation is taking place.

This color change is more common in weasels that live in northern Illinois because snow is more prevalent here, Wildlife Illinois reports. In areas where snow is not as common, weasels often develop white patches on their reddish-brown coats.

Gray tree frogs

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Gray tree frogs are small frogs that typically live in the woodlands near waterways, and there’s a good chance you’ve never seen one, but not because of their small size. Instead, it’s because these frogs can change color based on their environment and activities, helping them blend in nicely no matter where they happen to be.

These frogs, also called chameleon tree frogs, can change color because the shape of their pigment cells changes in response to conditions such as light and temperature, according to the Illinois Natural History Survey. In low light or when temperatures drop, the pigment cells expand, making their skin appear darker. When there’s more light or temperatures increase, the shrinking cells make them appear a brighter color.

The gray tree frog may excel at camouflage because of its color-changing ability, but many frogs and toads are able to blend into their surroundings because of their coloring. Most frogs and toads we see are green or greenish-brown, which helps them blend in with their normal habitat and escape detection by predators.

(Lead image via Shutterstock)

_____________

Stay up-to-date on the happenings in Will County's forest preserves by subscribing to The Citizen, our weekly digital newsletter that provides subscribers with updates on Forest Preserve news, upcoming events, and other fun and useful information for the whole family. If you're only interested in programs, subscribe to The Weekly Five, which outlines the five must-do programs each week. Signing up for either newsletter is easy and free of charge.