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Camouflage is a trick that animals use to blend in to their environment. It is used as a defense against predators, and camouflage is also used by predators to sneak up on prey. Often camouflage is so convincing that you cannot see the animal even when you know that they are there.

Probably the most common way animals are camouflaged is by background matching. The animal hides by looking similar to its background. This form of camouflage is often accomplished by matching colors to blend in. The animal can also move in ways, or have a body shaped in a way, that make the animal appear like its background.

  • Some animals have seasonal color changes, like this arctic fox. In the winter its coat is white to blend in with the snow, and during the summer its fur becomes a more similar color to dirt.

  • These two animals mimic both movement and shape to keep them hidden.

The walking leaf is an insect that mimics (or copies) the look and movement of a leaf. Its body is the shape of a leaf that has bite marks on it. As the walking leaf moves, it gently rocks back and forth to look like a leaf blowing in the wind.

The leafy seadragon is a relative of the seahorse. Leafy seadragons have leaf shaped appendages covering their body, which combined with their floating movement through the water, make them appear nearly identical to seaweed.

  • The decorator crab makes its own camouflage by attaching other plants and animals to its self. The crab is covered in hooked hairs that act similar to velcro, so that their decoration sticks to them. They constantly redecorate with local materials like shells, gravel, seaweed, anemones or coral.

  • Animals like the octopus can change the color and texture of their skin to hide from predators and look like the rocks, corals, or other items that are close to them. One species, the mimic octopus, can even change its shape, movement, and coloration to impersonate other animals.

Another way camouflage is used is in disruptive coloration, which is a coloration pattern that confuses other animals into thinking they are looking at something different. Disruptive coloration uses strongly contrasting markings, like stripes or spots, to break up the outline of the animals body.

  • A tiger's orange fur helps it blend into vegetation and the stripes help it disappear in the shadows.

  • Zebra's stripes make them stand out, however, it makes an individual zebra hard to pick out from the herd.

  • This butterfly fish has bands that hide the location of its eyes, making it harder for predators to know which end to aim for.

Countershading is a third camouflage technique. The body of the animal is colored so that the top of the body is darker than the underside is.

  • The underside of sharks and whales is a light grey to blend in with the light color of the sunlight coming through the water, if you were looking up at them. If you were looking down on a shark, down into the dark shadows of the ocean, you would see a dark grey coloration. In this way, the shark can camouflage better with the two shades of ocean, depending on which way you are viewing it. Viewed from the side though, the light coming from above does not cast a detectable shadow on the shark, which also helps it stay hidden.

  • Sunlight comes from above and makes the top part of an animal brighter, which highlights their body and makes them stand out. But when the top is already darker, they don't stand out as much with the shadows the sun creates. This deer is another example, notice its belly is much lighter than its back?

A fourth, and unexpected, camouflage technique is olfactory camouflage which involves an animal hiding through the way they smell.

  • The California ground squirrel finds rattlesnake skin, chews it up, and applies the paste to its own tail. Rattlesnakes are one of its main predators, and if one comes across the ground squirrel, the snake will be hesitant to attack something that smells like another venomous snake.

Activity #1

Materials needed: Large bag of Skittles, large bag of plain M&M's, a timer

1. Pour your candies all into a pie tin, plate, or in one place on the table. Make sure they are mixed together well.

2. Pretend that you are a predator that is hunting for M&M's. However, you need to avoid the Skittles because those make you sick. Set your timer to 20 seconds and pick out as many M&M's as you can while avoiding the Skittles.

3. Once the timer goes off, count how many M&M's you were able to pick up.

  • Did you accidentally pick up any Skittles?

  • Do you think the M&M's camouflage as skittles slowed down your hunting?

  • Which color M&M's did you select the least? Do you think that had to do with them camouflaging with Skittles?

Activity #2

Download the document below:

camouflage background
Download DOCX • 8.66MB

The document has images of several plants. Draw an animal (any kind you want) within the foliage that uses one of the camouflage techniques. You can make up an animal and create its image so that it camouflages if you want. On the bottom of the page, describe the type of camouflage.

Activity #3

Choose one of the animals described above.

  • Most animals use more than one technique to camouflage. List all the ways that they use to hide themselves.

  • Is your chosen animal a predator that is using camouflage to sneak up on prey, or prey using camouflage to hide from predators (remember prey are the animals that get eaten, predators hunt other animals)?

  • What made you choose this animal? What do you think makes it unique and interesting?

  • Have you ever spotted an animal in the wild that was hiding using camouflage? What was it? What kind of camouflage was it using?

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