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Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

Oh, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive!

- Sir Walter Scott, Marmion

Camouflage in nature
The irregular vertical dark stripes break the shape of the tiger against the background, camouflaging it to perfection. The poisonous stonefish blends invisibly into the sea bed, waiting for unsuspecting prey to come within striking range. Camouflage helps animals to hunt and to hide.
It is the stuff of survival

Common baron caterpillar Euthalia aconthea

Dr. Anish Andheria Photo: Dr. Anish Andheria.

The spiny caterpillar of the common baron butterfly chews on leaf margins under the cover of darkness. While resting during the day, it aligns the pale yellow band on its dorsal surface with the mid-vein of the leaf, merging perfectly with the background. Its favoured food plants include mango, cashew and loranthus leaves.

Bharal Pseudois nayaur

Otto Pfister
Photo: Otto Pfister.

The bharal’s slaty colour blends into the bluish-brown shale and rock of its habitat on steep Himalayan hillsides. This camouflage helps it escape the roving eye of predators such as the snow leopard and humans.

Common Green Forest calotes Calotes calotes

T.N.A. Perumal Photo: T.N.A. Perumal.

Reptiles’ skin cells contain pigment granules (chromatophores). Yellow chromatophores (xanthophores) are situated immediately under the epidermis, while those containing guanine crystals (iridophores) and black chromatophores (melanophores) are deeper in the dermis. The colours depend on the nature and arrangement of these specialised cells. This young green calotes, found in the moss-laden forests of south India, depends on the interplay of such chemicals to disguise itself and thus survive.

As a general rule, movement gives the game away. Animals that hide often use the tactic of ‘freezing’ to enhance the effectiveness of their disguise. Interestingly, while movement triggers the chase response, biologists and ethologists confirm that most predators tend not to react to stationary prey. Some species even feign death in an attempt to dissuade predators such as snakes and mantids. Another strategy, commonly seen in fish, mammals and certain caterpillars, is to look paler below than above, a phenomenon known as countershading. This makes an animal appear shapeless and more difficult to see against the light.

Indian cricket frog Fejervarya sp.

Dr. Anish Andheria Photo: Dr. Anish Andheria.

Frogs have special skin cells that contain black melanin granules. These are intricately branched and melanin may either be distributed throughout the branches or concentrated at one spot. When dispersed, there is an overall darkening of the skin and when concentrated, the animal turns pale. This could explain the colour variations in individuals of the same species as seen in the picture.

Bush cricket Family: Tettigoniidae

Dr. Anish Andheria
Photo: Dr. Anish Andheria.

These largely nocturnal insects are also called long-horned grasshoppers. Many are cryptically coloured and dorso-ventrally flattened. The forewings, which resemble leaves and barks, are masterpieces of deception. Such adaptations help these otherwise defenceless insects to escape predation. Male bush crickets signal mates and competitors through sound by rubbing the hind edge of the right forewing against a row of ‘teeth’ on the left forewing.

Geometrid caterpillar (inchworm/looper) Family: Geometridae

Dr. Anish Andheria
Photo: Dr. Anish Andheria.

Many insects remain unconcealed in their resting places but survive because predators do not recognise them for what they are. Geometrid moth caterpillars resemble the twigs on which they rest. They attach themselves to the perch by the last pair of their prolegs (false legs), with the body projecting at a twig-like angle and even swaying occasionally, as though with the wind!

Short-horned grasshopper Acrida sp.

Dr. Anish Andheria
Photo: Dr. Anish Andheria.

While some grasshoppers proudly advertise their inedibility with bright colouration, others rely on camouflage. An important food source for several creatures, the varying shades of green and yellow help grasshoppers merge into the background, thus ensuring the survival of enough individuals to guarantee the perpetuation of the species, thus providing food for future generations of predators as well!

Nature often arms creatures with stripes or bands that are darker or lighter than the rest of its body. This ‘disruptive colouration’ helps to break up otherwise distinctive body shapes. Some butterflies thus have semi-transparent wings and are virtually invisible in flight. Insects and spiders, on the other hand, sport bright colours to camouflage themselves amidst flowers.

Large-tailed Nightjar Caprimulgus macrurus

Hira Punjabi Photo: Hira Punjabi.

This ground-nesting bird is superbly adapted to concealment in the open. Crepuscular and nocturnal, it sports a soft owl-like, cryptically-patterned plumage. The nightjar will fly to and fro, wheeling, gliding and hovering with its mouth agape to snap up insects. When day dawns, it chooses a safe and inconspicuous spot to rest, generally sitting lengthwise on branches or merging into a virtual jigsaw of vegetation and leaf litter on the forest floor.

From caterpillars that look like bare, dead twigs, chameleons that change the way they look to match different surroundings to the nightjar’s rock-and-leaf colouration and the polar bear’s light colour that helps it to blend into the snow – animals use colour, pattern, texture, shape, size and behaviour to stay alive.

Praying mantis Gongylus sp. with a wasp

Dr. Anish Andheria Photo: Dr. Anish Andheria.

Many creatures adapt to their green and brown world by adorning themselves with these colours. Some insects go a step further and ‘do themselves up’ to look like flowers! Such a strategy delivered an unsuspecting wasp unto this mantis. Mantids are referred to as the ‘tigers’ of the insect world, because of their ability to stealthily launch deadly attacks owing to their perfect camouflage.

Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXII. No. 5. October 2002.


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November 21, 2013, 06:03 PM
 Amazing. What awesome camouflage.
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