Changing the colour of your skin or scales, pretending to be a dead leaf or rock, or even mimicking the appearance and actions of other animals – these are just some of the tricks animals need to survive.
Many predators and prey alike cannot rely just on brute strength or speed alone to outlast one another, so it makes sense to develop an ability to blend into the environment and look like anything other than a potential meal.
A recent study on the bearded dragon lizard shows it can change colour in various body parts for purposes other than just camouflage. That got us thinking – what are some of the weirdest cases of camouflage techniques in the animal kingdom?
Eastern bearded dragon lizard
The Eastern bearded dragon lizard (Pogona barbata), found in wooded areas in eastern Australia, has been known to change colour in order to camouflage itself, but according to a recent study, colour changes on different parts of its body actually serve different functions.
The lizard can change the colour of its back in response to temperature. This adaptation allows them to greatly reduce the time it takes to reach active body temperature during the breeding season.
Colour changes on its neck and beard, on the other hand, occur only for the purposes of communication – it changes colour in these areas from cream to jet-black during social interactions.
Dead leaf butterfly
Numerous animals have adapted to their environments in ingenious ways by simply looking like dead plant life that a carnivore wouldn’t even glance at. One of the most spectacular examples of this camouflage is the dead leaf butterfly (Kallima inachus), found in tropical Asia.
The upperside of its wings is adorned in vivid blue, orange and black patterns, but the undersides of its wings are where the real magic happens. When closed, the wings perfectly resemble a dead brown leaf, complete with irregular shades and patterns, darkened veins, jagged edges and even tiny fungus spots!
It has evolved this camouflage feature through various intermediate forms over many years and is a beautiful example of the complex genetic factors and environmental pressures that underpin its ability to evade bird predators.
Coral reefs are not only to some of the world’s most vibrant creatures, but also some of its deadliest. The reef stonefish (Synanceia verrucosa) resembles, as its name suggests, an encrusted rock or lump of coral, and is usually brown or grey with patches of red, yellow or orange. It may sound innocuous, but this carnivorous fish is also one of the most venomous in the world, possessing 13 dorsal spines that can inject venom if disturbed (or if you step on it in a shallow reef).
Its stony appearance allows it to blend in with rocks, corals and pebbles at the bottom of coral reefs, where it waits for unsuspecting food like crustaceans to swim by, before striking with ferocious speed. Meanwhile, larger fish like sharks and rays, prey upon itself, so its camouflage features allow the stonefish to hide from those higher up in the food chain.
Indonesian Mimic octopus
Unlike the dead leaf butterfly and reef stonefish, some animals have mastered the art of mimicking not inanimate objects, but rather other animals. Most octopus species use specialised pigment sacs called chromatophores to change colour and texture to blend into their surroundings, but the Indonesian mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus) has taken this camouflage technique one step further by impersonating local species and predators.
The mimic octopus is typically brown and white-striped in appearance, and is found in shallow sandy water near river mouths that are often teeming with other predators. When threatened, it can rapidly change appearance by contorting its body to mimic the shape of more dangerous creatures. For example, it mimics sea snakes by hiding in a hole and sticking two legs out in opposite directions with menacing black and white bands.
It has also been observed impersonating other species like lionfish, flatfish, and jellyfish. Octopuses are generally quite intelligent creatures, but the thing that makes the mimic octopus truly remarkable is that it can tailor which animal it impersonates based on the predator it is faced with. Now that’s true adaptation.