Deceptive coloration is when an organism's color fools either its predators or prey. There are two types of deceptive coloration: camouflage and mimicry. Camouflage Camouflage helps an organism blend in with its surroundings. Camouflage can be colors or patterns or both. When organisms are camouflaged, they are harder to find. This means predators have to spend longer finding them. That's a waste of energy!
Blending In: Stripes or Solids? There are lots of different examples of camouflage. Some colors and patterns help animals blend into areas with light and shadow. The tiger's stripes help it blend into tall grass. Its golden brown strips blend in with the grass and the dark brown and black stripes merge with darker shadows. When a tiger is hiding in the grass, it is very difficult to spot!
Other big cats like leopards, jaguars and cheetahs have spots that help them blend into their environment. Their spots work the same way the tiger's stripes do. The dark spots blend in with the shadows and the lighter fur blends in with lighter areas of their surroundings like the sunlight shining on the plants around them.
Disruptive Coloration - Break It Up
Stripes and spots can be disruptive coloration. Disruptive coloration helps break up an animal's outline. This makes it difficult for other animals to see it. You'd think that the black and white stripes of the zebra would make it easy for predators to see it! The main predator of the zebra is the lion. Lions don't like to hunt in the heat of the day, they prefer sleeping in the shade. They hunt as it gets dark. As the sun goes down, the black and white stripes of the zebra help it blend into the tall grass. But the zebra's stripes have another purpose.
Zebras live in herds. Lions like to pick out one member of the herd that looks weak. When the lion attacks, the zebras start running in all directions. With all those stripes mixing together, its easy for the lion to lose the zebra it picked out of the herd.
Top and Bottom: Counter Shading Another type of camouflage is called counter shading. Animals with countershading have different colors on their backs and stomachs. The red squirrel has reddish-brown fur on top and white fur on its undersides. The darker top fur makes it harder for predators to see the squirrel when it is on the ground. When it is perched on a tree branch, the white fur on its belly helps it to blend into the lighter sky above.
Penguins also have counter shading. Penguins spend a lot of time in the water. The dark feathers on their backs help camouflage them from predators that are swimming above them. Their white stomach feathers hide them from predators swimming below them.
Mimicry Some animals and plants look like other things -- they mimic them. Mimicry is another type of deceptive coloration. It can protect the mimic from predators or hide the mimic from prey. If mimicry was a play, there would be three characters. The Model - the species or object that is copied. The Mimic - looks and acts like another species or object. The Dupe- the tricked predator or prey.
The poisonous coral snake and the harmless king snake look a lot alike. Predators will avoid the king snake because they think it is poisonous.
The viceroy butterfly and monarch butterfly were once thought to exhibit mimicry where a harmless species mimics a toxic species. Studies conducted in the early 1990's suggest that the viceroy and the monarch are actually examples of two equally toxic species mimicing each other to the benefit of each. Just goes to show you that there's always something new to discover in the natural world!
Aggressive MimicrySome mimics look like something else, not to avoid predators, but to catch prey. Aggressive mimics resemble their background or signal that they are something else to help them catch their prey.
The frogfish or angler fish lures its prey to where it can strike. It has a long antenna-like extension on its head that it wiggles. Other fish and crustaceans think its a little fish and come in close to eat it. When they do, the anglerfish eats them!
Cryptic (Protective) Coloration Some organisms look so much like another object that they almost disappear!
The walking stick looks so much like a twig that it's easy to overlook it.
The katydid looks like a leaf.
The praying mantis can look like a leaf and a twig!
Eyespots: I'm Watching You!
Some butterflies and moths have large eyespots. These eyespots trick birds into thinking the butterfly or moth is much larger than it really is!