Nature’s hide & seek

By Scott Stegenga
For The Courier

The wildlife we see when in the woods is just a fraction of what is really just under our noses. We would be surprised how many creatures we walk right by without ever noticing them. Nearly all types of wildlife have some sort of camouflage that enables them to go undiscovered in the daylight hours. Humans have learned well from the natural world. Like animals, we use camouflage for various reasons. Military soldiers wear camouflage uniforms to be less obvious to the foe. Hunters wear camouflage to stay hidden while prey moves into striking distance. Wildlife photographers also may attempt to stay under the cover of camouflage in order to get the perfect shot of that unaware animal.

Because the flight or fight reaction requires valuable energy, the first line of defense for some wildlife is often keeping still and blending in with the environment. Effective camouflage is accomplished in many different ways in the animal kingdom. The most familiar method is coloration matching the background such as a green katydid or praying mantis on summer vegetation. This comes in handy for hiding and for hunting.

Cryptic coloration is also used by many types of animals such as grouse, woodcocks, owls, snakes, fawns, chipmunks, frogs, moths, and many other insects. A cryptic pattern is mottling of shades of brown or gray that blends well with dead leaves, bark, rocks, or lichen covered surfaces. There is a certain spider and a grasshopper that are perfect matches on rock outcrops that exist in our mountains. When sitting still, they are almost impossible to locate.

In the case of birds, many eggs are speckled or mottled to help conceal them, especially in species which nest on or near the ground. Hummingbird and gnatcatcher nests are covered in lichens which simply look like a small knob of a broken branch on a tree limb.

Some animals use disruptive coloration or mimicry. Certain moths exhibit this with bold patterns set contrary to the wing shape or “eye spots” that mimic the head of a larger animal. Many birds have a dark line running through the eye that helps hide this vulnerable part of the body.

Countershading is present in some animals as well. For example, a squirrel, frog, and many fish are darker on top and lighter underneath. This helps offset the opposite effect daylight has on the body. Looking up towards the animal, the underside matches the brighter sky and looking down on the animal, the back matches the darker ground or water.

An animal’s posture or body shape is also an aid to camouflage. An owl perched motionless in a tree can look just like another broken branch stub or rough bark. A walking stick resembles a twig, a leaf hopper appears to be a thorn, and an algae covered turtle shell can pass for a rock.

Several animals use more than one of these methods to avoid predators in the wild. Even plants use camouflage. An acorn or a hickory nut is green on the branch but once it falls to the ground, it turns brown and becomes harder to see among the leaf litter on the forest floor.