Now you see me, Now you don’t!
Who doesn’t love a good game of hide and seek? Hide and seek happens in nature through adaptations known as camouflage and mimicry. Most of these adaptations have developed over time. Members of those species who use camouflage or mimicry are more likely to survive, so many species have evolved to use these adaptations.
Camouflage and mimicry sound similar but are quite different. Camouflage helps a creature blend into their environment, so they can be hidden; however, mimicry helps them blend in by standing out. With mimicry, one creature mimics another to gain an advantage – sometimes this means having the same bright colors or markings.
A great example of camouflage is the octopus. There are many species of octopus but most of them use some form of camouflage both to hide from predators and ambush their prey. They have specialized cells called chromatophores that contain pigment or reflect light. As they move they can rapidly change colors to match their environment. They can even manipulate the papillae on their skin to change texture and fully blend into their surroundings! Being an invertebrate cephalopod also means that they can easily adjust their shape to fit into small spaces.
What about predators? Both owls and cheetahs utilize camouflage. Owls not only visually blend in they also blend in sound wise. Owls have a specialized rounded wing shape that allows them to fly silently. This adaptation serves them well because a lot of their prey have very sensitive hearing. Most owls also have plumage that matches their environment, for example: the great horned owl blends with the bark of a tree; the snowy owl blends into the white snow of the tundra.
Cheetahs use camouflage and mimicry. The adults with their tawny coats blend into the grass while their spots mimic shadows. It is this appearance that helps to break up the cheetah’s outline making them hard to spot as they stalk their prey. Young cheetahs have totally different markings to both blend in and use mimicry. They have a silvery patch of fur on their back that mimics the honey badger, which protects cubs through association, since the honey badger is super aggressive. Nothing wants to mess with a honey badger!
Mimicry is a very efficient adaptation – by looking like something else, the organism saves energy hiding or fleeing. Even though a lot of mimics stand out with their markings, they gain the same protection as their inspiration through association. There are a few different ways that creatures mimic each other, but most are to avoid predation.
In the butterfly world there are many mimics, but the best example is the monarch and viceroy butterflies! Monarchs are poisonous thanks to the milkweed they consume as larvae. By mimicking them, viceroy butterflies avoid predation through association. The interesting thing is both butterflies are poisonous, so this is considered Mullerian mimicry. The thought is this mimicry evolved simply because it is easier to look alike and avoid predation versus a predator having to learn multiple ways to avoid these and other poisonous butterflies.
Now that you’ve learned all the ways that animals blend in, how would you blend in to your backyard? Take some time to look around your backyard and see if you can find any hidden creatures. Being a good copycat pays off in nature!
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