The Human Side of Animals: Chapter 1 – Animals that Practice Camouflage

The Human Side of Animals: Chapter 1 - Animals that Practice Camouflage
The Human Side of Animals by Royal Dixon is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here: [LINK TO TABLE OF LINK]. Chapter I: Animals that practice camouflage


"She was a gordian shape of dazzling line,
Vermilion-spotted, golden, green and blue;
Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard,
Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr'd,
And full of silver moons, that, as she breathed,
Dissolved, or brighter shone, or interwreathed
Their lustres with the glorious tapestries…."
—Keats (on Lamia, the snake).
The art of concealment or camouflage is one of the newest and most highly developed techniques of modern warfare. But the animals have been masters of it for ages. The lives of most of them are passed in constant conflict. Those which have enemies from which they cannot escape by rapidity of motion must be able to hide or disguise themselves. Those which hunt for a living must be able to approach their prey without unnecessary noise or attention to themselves. It is very remarkable how Nature helps the wild creatures to disguise themselves by colouring them with various shades and tints best calculated to enable them to escape enemies or to entrap prey.
The animals of each locality are usually coloured according to their habitat, but good reasons make some exceptions advisable. Many of the most striking examples of this protective resemblance among animals are the result of their very intimate association with the surrounding flora and natural scenery. There is no part of a tree, including flowers, fruits, bark and roots, that is not in some way copied and imitated by these clever creatures. Often this imitation is astonishing in its faithfulness of detail. Bunches of cocoanuts are portrayed by sleeping monkeys, while even the leaves are copied by certain tree-toads, and many flowers are represented by monkeys and lizards. The winding roots of huge trees are copied by snakes that twist themselves together at the foot of the tree.
In the art of camouflage—an art which affects the form, colour, and attitude of animals—Nature has worked along two different roads. One is easy and direct, the other circuitous and difficult. The easy way is that of protective resemblance pure and simple, where the animal's colour, form, or attitude becomes like that of its habitat. In which case the animal becomes one with its environment and thus is enabled to go about unnoticed by its enemies or by its prey. The other way is that of bluff, and it includes all inoffensive animals which are capable of assuming attitudes and colours that terrify and frighten. The colours in some cases are really of warning pattern, yet they cannot be considered mimetic unless they are thought to resemble the patterns of some extinct model of which we know nothing; and since they are not found in present-day animals with unpleasant qualities, they are not, strictly speaking, warning colours.
Desert animals are in most cases desert-coloured. The lion, for example, is almost invisible when crouched among the rocks and streams of the African wastes. Antelopes are tinted like the landscape over which they roam, while the camel seems actually to blend with the desert sands. The kangaroos of Australia at a little distance seem to disappear into the soil of their respective localities, while the cat of the Pampas accurately reflects his surroundings in his fur.
The tiger is made so invisible by his wonderful colour that, when he crouches in the bright sunlight amid the tall brown grass, it is almost impossible to see him. But the zebra and the giraffe are the kings of all camouflagers! So deceptive are the large blotch-spots of the giraffe and his weird head and horns, like scrubby limbs, that his concealment is perfect. Even the cleverest natives often mistake a herd of giraffes for a clump of trees. The camouflage of zebras is equally deceptive. Drummond says that he once found himself in a forest, looking at what he thought to be a lone zebra, when to his astonishment he suddenly realised that he was facing an entire herd which were invisible until they became frightened and moved. Evidently the zebra is well aware that the black-and-white stripes of his coat take away the sense of solid body, and that the two colours blend into a light gray, and thus at close range the effect is that of rays of sunlight passing through bushes.
The arctic animals, with few exceptions, are remarkable for imitating their surroundings; their colour of white blends perfectly with the snow around them. The polar bear is the only white bear, and his home is always among the snow and ice. The arctic fox, alpine hare, and ermine change to white in winter only, because during the other seasons white would be too conspicuous. The American arctic hare is always white because he always lives among the white expanses of the Far North. Both foxes and stoats are carnivorous and feed upon ptarmigan and hares, and they must be protectively coloured that they may catch their prey. On the other hand, Nature aids the prey by providing them with colours that enable them to escape the attention of their enemies.
The young of many of the arctic animals are covered with fluffy white hair, so that while they are too young to swim they may lie with safety upon the ground and escape the attention of polar bears; but in the antarctic regions, where there are few enemies to fear, the young seals, for instance, are exactly the colour of their parents.
The most remarkable exception of mimetic colouring among the animals of the polar regions is the sable. Throughout the long Siberian winter he retains his coat of rich brown fur. His habits, however, are such that he does not need the protection of colour, for he is so active that he can easily catch wild birds, and he can also subsist upon wild berries. The woodchuck of North America retains his coat of dark-brown fur throughout the long, cold winters. The matter of his obtaining food, however, is easy, for he lives in burrows, near streams where he can catch fish and small animals that live in or near the water.
A number of the old-school naturalists believed that when an animal's colouring assumed the snowy-white coat of its arctic surroundings, this was due to the natural tendency on the part of its hair and fur to assume the colourings and tints of their habitat. This, however, is absolutely false; and no better proof of it can be offered than the case of the arctic musk-ox, who is far more polar in his haunts than even the polar bear, and is therefore exposed to the whitening influence of the wintry regions more than the bear. Yet he never turns white, but is always brown. The only enemy of this northern-dweller is the arctic wolf, and against this enemy he is protected by powerful hoofs, thick hair, and immense horns. He does not need to conceal himself, and therefore does not simulate the colour of his surroundings.
American Museum of Natural History, New York


American Museum of Natural History, New York


Mimetic resemblances are worked out with great difficulty, except in such cases as the nocturnal animals, which simply become one with their surroundings. Mice, rats, moles, and bats wear overcoats that are very inconspicuous, and when suddenly approached they appear almost invisible. Some of the North American Indians claimed that buffaloes made their calves wallow in the red clay to prevent them from being seen when they were lying down in the red soil.
The kinds of protection from these mimetic resemblances are many and varied: the lion, because of his sandy-colouring, is able to conceal himself by merely crouching down upon the desert sands; the striped tiger hides among the tufts of grass and bamboos of the tropics, the stripes of his body so blending with the vertical stems as to prevent even the natives from seeing him in this position. The kudu, one of the handsomest of the antelopes, is a remarkable animal in several ways. His camouflage is so perfect that it gives him magnificent courage. With his spiral horns, white face, and striped coat tinted in pale blue, he is almost invisible when hiding in a thicket. The perfect harmony of his horns with the twisted vines and branches, and the white colourings with blue tints in the reflected sunlight conceal him entirely.
The snow-leopard, which inhabits Central Asia, is stony-grey, with large annular spots to match the rocks among which he lives. This colouration conceals him from the sheep, upon which he preys; while the spotted and blotchy pattern of the so-called clouded tiger, and the peculiarly-barred skin of the ocelot, imitate the rugged bark of trees, upon which these animals live.
One of the most unusual and skilled mimics is the Indian sloth, whose colour pattern and unique eclipsing effects seem almost incredible to those unfamiliar with the real facts. His home is in the trees, and he has a deep, orange-coloured spot on his back, which would make him very conspicuous if seen out of his home surroundings. But he is very clever, and clings to the moss-draped trees, where the effect of the orange-coloured spot is exactly like the scar on the tree, while his hair resembles the withered moss so strikingly that even naturalists are deceived.
Henry Drummond must have known the animal world rather well when he remarked that "Carlisle in his blackest visions of 'shams and humbugs' among humanity never saw anything so finished in hypocrisy as the naturalist now finds in every tropical forest. There are to be seen creatures, not singly, but in tens of thousands, whose every appearance, down to the minutest spot and wrinkle, is an affront to truth, whose every attitude is a pose for a purpose, and whose whole life is a sustained lie. Before these masterpieces of deception the most ingenious of human impositions are vulgar and transparent. Fraud is not only the great rule of life in a tropical forest, but the one condition of it."
Many of the larger cats live in trees, and most of them have spotted or oscillated skins, which aid them in hiding among foliage plants. The puma who wears a brown coat is an exception, but it must be remembered that he does not need the kind of coat his fellow friends wear. He clings so closely to the body of a tree while waiting for his prey as to be almost invisible.
This phenomenon is true throughout the animal world. Everywhere does Nature aid in escape and capture. Only those skilled in the ways of the wild fully realise how conspicuous amidst foliage, for instance, would be a uniform colouration. A parti-coloured pattern is extremely deceptive and thus protective, and for this reason one seldom sees in Nature a background of one colour; and since the large majority of animals need concealment, it is necessary for them to be clothed in patterns that vary.
These variations are especially noticeable in young animals, and furnish them with a mantle that is practically invisible to predatory enemies during the time they are left unprotected by their parents. These protective mantles often differ strikingly in pattern and colouration from those of their parents, and indicate that the young animals present the colouration and pattern of their remote forbears. It might even be said that "the skins of the fathers are thrust upon the children, even unto the third and fourth generation!" In fact, it is quite probable that they give through this varying colouration the "life-history" of their family.
In all hoofed animals—antelope, deer, horses—the protective colouration is also adapted to habitat and environment. Most deer belong to the forest, carefully avoiding the open deserts and staying near water. They live chiefly in the jungle or scrub, and are usually spotted with red and white in such a way as to be almost invisible to a casual observer; some, however, that live in the very shady places are uniformly dark so as to harmonise with their surroundings. The wild horses and asses of Central Asia are dun-coloured—corresponding exactly to their sandy habitat.
The Shakesperian conception of the human world as a stage may be paralleled in the animal world. Animals, like human beings, have all a definite rôle to play in the drama of life. Each is given certain equipment in form, colour, voice, demeanour, ambitions, desires, and natural habitat. Some are given much, others but little. Many have succeeded well in the art of camouflage while endeavouring to make a success in life. This success has brought the desired opportunity of mating, rearing young, bequeathing to them their special gifts and living in ease and comfort.
One of the most successful and striking cases of protective colouration in young animals is found in wild swine. Here there is longitudinal striping which marks them from head to tail in broad white bands, over a background of reddish dark brown. The tapirs have a most unique form of marking. It is similar in the young of the South American and Malayan species. Their bodies are exquisitely marked in snow-white bars. At their extremities these bars are broken up into small dots which tend to overlap each other. During the daytime these young animals seek the shade of the bushes and as the spots of sunlight fall upon the ground they appear so nearly one with their environment as to pass unnoticed by their enemies. The adults, however, vary greatly one from another in colouration. The American species is self-coloured, while the Malayan has the most unique pattern known to the animal world. The fore-quarters, the head, and the hind-legs are black, while the rest of the body from the shoulders backwards is of a dirt-white colour.
It has been observed by all students of Nature that bold and gaudy animals usually have means of defending themselves that make them very disagreeable to their enemies. They either have poisonous fangs, sharp spines, ferocious claws, or disagreeable odours. There are still others that escape destruction because of the bad company with which they are associated by their enemies.
The reptiles offer us many good examples of mimicry. Most arboreal lizards wear the colour of the leaves upon which they feed; the same is true of the whip-snakes and the tiny green tree-frogs. A striking example of successful camouflage is found in the case of a North American frog whose home is on lichen-covered rocks and walls, which he so closely imitates in colour and pattern as to pass unnoticed so long as he remains quiet. I have seen an immense frog, whose home was in a damp cave, with large green and black spots over his body precisely like the spots on the sides of his home.
Author Note: The word "mimicry" as used here implies a particular kind of resemblance only, a resemblance in external appearance, never internal, a resemblance that deceives. It does not imply voluntary imitation. Both the words "mimicry" and "imitation" are used to imply outward likeness. The object of the outward likeness or resemblance is to cause a harmless or unprotected animal to be mistaken for the dangerous one which he oftentimes imitates; or to aid the unprotected animal in escaping unnoticed among the surroundings he may simulate.
A splendid example of pure bluff is shown in the case of the harmless Australian lizard, known scientifically under the name of chlamydosaurus kingii. When he is undisturbed he seems perfectly inoffensive, but when he becomes angry, he becomes a veritable fiend-like reptile. In this condition he stands up on his hind legs, opens his gaping mouth, showing the most terrible teeth, which, by the way, have never been known to bite anything. Besides this forbidding display he further adds to his terrible appearance by raising the most extraordinary frill which is exquisitely decorated in grey, yellow, scarlet, and blue. This he uses like an umbrella, and if in this way he does not succeed in frightening away his enemy, he rushes at him, and lashes him with his saw-like tail. Even dogs are terrified at such camouflage and leave the successful bluffer alone.
In all parts of the tropics are tree-snakes that lie concealed among the boughs and shrubs. Most of them are green, and some have richly coloured bands around their bodies which look not unlike gaily coloured flowers, and which, no doubt, attract flower-seeking insects and birds. Among these may be mentioned the deadly-poisonous snakes of the genus elaps of South America. They are so brilliantly provided with bright red and black bands trimmed with yellow rings that it is not uncommon for a plant collector to attempt to pick them up for rare orchids!
Wherever these snakes are found, are also found a number of perfectly harmless snakes, absolutely unlike the dangerous ones in habit and life, yet coloured precisely the same. The elaps fulvius, for example, a deadly venomous snake of Guatemala, has a body trimmed in simple black bands on a coral-red ground, and in the same country and always with him is found a quite harmless snake, which is coloured and banded in the same identical manner. The terrible and much-feared elaps lemnicatus has the peculiar black bands divided into divisions of three by narrow yellow rings, thus exactly mimicking a harmless snake, the pliocerus elapoides, both of which live in Mexico. Presumably, the deadly variety assumes the colouring of the harmless kind in order to deceive intended victims as to his ferocity.
Surely this is sufficient evidence that colouration and pattern-design is a useful camouflage device of the great struggle for existence. And it is safe to assert that any animal that has enemies and still does not resort to protective colouration or mimicry in some form is entirely able to protect itself either by its size, strength, ferocity, or by resorting to safety in numbers. Elephants and rhinoceroses, for example, are too powerful to be molested when grown, except in the rarest cases, and are furthermore thoroughly capable of protecting their young. Hippopotamuses are protected by their immense heads, and are capable of defending their young from crocodiles even when in the water.
The bison and buffalo, which were once so powerful on the plains of North America, were protected by their gregarious habits, which terrorised their enemies—the wolves. Their nurseries were a feature of their wisdom. These were circular pens where the tall grass was tramped down by expectant mothers for the protection of their young. This natural nursery was protected from the inside by sentinels who went round and round the pen constantly guarding the young not only from the attack of wolves but also from venturing forth alone too early into the open unprotected plains. In a similar way the snow-pens of the moose of the Far North serve to protect them from the hungry hordes of wolves of which they live in constant danger. This indicates that the annihilation of the bison and buffalo was due, not to lack of wisdom, but to man's inhumanity; for, taking advantage of their nurseries, the men crouched near and concealing themselves in the grass killed not only the mothers for food but even the young in their savage sport.
The large majority of monkeys are protectively coloured with some shade of brown or grey, with specially marked faces. Entire packs of Ceylonese species will, at the slightest alarm, become invisible by crouching on a palm-tree. One of the most strikingly coloured African monkeys is jet black with a white bushy tail, and a face surrounded by a white ring, or mantle of long silky hair. He thus simulates so strikingly the hanging white lichens upon the trees that he is rarely seen by his enemies.
A book might be written upon the various ways that animals, when closely associated with other animals or human beings, imitate them. Darwin says that "two species of wolves, which had been reared by dogs, learned to bark, as does sometimes the jackall," and it is well known that certain dogs, when reared by cats, imitate their habits, even to the licking of their feet and the washing of their faces. If a mongrel dog associates with a trained dog for any period of time it is remarkable the progress he will make. For this same reason young dogs are carried on hunting trips with trained dogs that they may learn by imitation the art of hunting.
In the whole realm of Nature there is nothing more wonderful than this matter of protective colouration. Animals do not monopolise the art. It extends through the whole world of living creatures. The fact that individual animals have no voluntary control over their own colour is eloquent testimony as to the existence of mysterious life forces and racial evolutions which are still far beyond the grasp of man's understanding. To see a tiny chameleon adapt his colouring to his environment, be it red, green, or yellow, in the twinkling of an eye, is to have seen an argument for God Himself.
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Dixon, Royal, 2006. The Human Side of Animals. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved May 2022 from
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