Scientists Say: Camouflage

A chameleon’s skin color shifts to match its surroundings as it climbs across this succulent plant.

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Scientists Say: Camouflage

Camouflage is a disguise that allows an organism to blend into its surroundings and avoid being seen. An organism’s shape, pattern, color or even movement are all traits that can provide camouflage.

Camouflage allows an organism to hide in plain sight — whether predator or prey.  A leopard’s dappled fur blends into the leaf shadows and tree bark when it lounges on a branch. That helps this predator sneak up on unsuspecting prey. But prey also can benefit from camouflage. A stick insect looks, and even moves, like a dry twig. And that may help it avoid becoming someone’s lunch.

Plants use camouflage too. For example, a plant called Fritillaria delavayi may have developed its drab coloring in response to humans collecting it. For over 2,000 years, this little plant has been valued in traditional Chinese medicine — and harvested by many people. Lithops — or “stone plants” — are another example. These plants avoid getting eaten by blending into arid, pebbly landscapes.

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For some species, camouflage is more than just colors and patterns. The flat-tail horned lizard (Phrynosoma mcallii) flattens its body against the sand. The lizard’s unique body shape lacks obvious angles. That means the desert sun casts no shadows that might give away its presence.

Some organisms can even alter their appearance in real time. The panther chameleon (Furcifer pardalis) needs only a minute or two to color-shift to match nearby surfaces. This territorial reptile needs only a minute more to change again. This time, to adopt vivid rainbow-like hues for challenging a competitor.

Some organisms go beyond just blending in. The glass frog, which has translucent skin, appears to vanish when it naps. How? The frog shuttles red blood cells into its organs when it sleeps. This turns the frog partially invisible.

Humans make use of camouflaged clothing, too. The most common applications appear on military or hunting gear.

The word camouflage can also be used as a verb. For instance, if someone dons hunting gear, you might describe the action as the person having camouflaged themselves.

A panda’s splotchy black-and-white coloring allows it to blend into the shadows.

Check out the full list of Scientists Say.

application: A particular use or function of something.

arid: A description of dry areas of the world, where the climate brings too little rainfall or other precipitation to support much plant growth.

camouflage: Hiding people or objects from an enemy by making them appear to be part of the natural surroundings. Animals can also use camouflage patterns on their skin, hide or fur to hide from predators.

cell: (in biology) The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the unaided eye, it consists of a watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Depending on their size, animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells. Most organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.

chameleon: A type of lizard known for its ability to change the color of its skin.

hue: A color or shade of some color.

insect: A type of arthropod that as an adult will have six segmented legs and three body parts: a head, thorax and abdomen. There are hundreds of thousands of insects, which include bees, beetles, flies and moths.

lizard: A type of reptile that typically walks on four legs, has a scaly body and a long tapering tail. Unlike most reptiles, lizards also typically have movable eyelids. Examples of lizards include the tuatara, chameleons, Komodo dragon, and Gila monster.

organ: (in biology) Various parts of an organism that perform one or more particular functions. For instance, an ovary is an organ that makes eggs, the brain is an organ that makes sense of nerve signals and a plant’s roots are organs that take in nutrients and moisture.

organism: Any living thing, from elephants and plants to bacteria and other types of single-celled life.

predator: (adjective: predatory) A creature that preys on other animals for most or all of its food.

real time: A term that connotes immediacy; something is being studied, recorded and/or reported at the very time it is happening.

reptile: Cold-blooded vertebrate animals, whose skin is covered with scales or horny plates. Snakes, turtles, lizards and alligators are all reptiles.

species: A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.

sun: The star at the center of Earth’s solar system. It is about 27,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Also a term for any sunlike star.

territorial: (in biology) An adjective for organisms that try to keep others of their species away from an area they control.

trait: A characteristic feature of something. (in genetics) A quality or characteristic that can be inherited.

translucent: The property of letting light through, but not being transparent. Usually, things viewed through a translucent material (such as frosted window glass) appear as hazy shapes with no detail.

unique: Something that is unlike anything else; the only one of its kind.

Journal:​​ ​ Y. Niu, M. Stevens & H. Sun. Commercial Harvesting Has Driven the Evolution of Camouflage in an Alpine Plant. Current Biology. Vol. 31, January 25, 2021. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.10.078.

Katie Grace Carpenter is a science writer and curriculum developer, with degrees in biology and biogeochemistry. She also writes science fiction and creates science videos. Katie lives in the U.S. but also spends time in Sweden with her husband, who’s a chef.

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Scientists Say: Camouflage

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