During a visit to Cape May State Park in New Jersey the last weekend in October, just days before Hurricane Sandy reached land, I spotted an adult box turtle crossing the road in front of our automobile.
Fearful a car would run over the turtle and to the dismay of my friends in the car, I jumped out of the car to rescue the turtle. In the few seconds it took to approach the turtle, it disappeared into the tall grass on the side of the road. I took two careful steps into the grassy field searching for this turtle. After spreading several blades of tall grass there it was, with symmetrically patterned patches of yellow on a dark brown shell, blending in with the dirt, leaves, and tall grass, thereby exhibiting effective camouflage. As the turtle crawled away to the safety of the field, I captured a photograph.
Camouflage is used by some animals to avoid detection by predators. At the same time, predators use camouflage to avoid detection by potential prey. Sport hunters dress in habitat-specific camouflage to avoid detection by wild game such as turkey, geese and white-tailed deer. The military uses camouflage on uniforms to hide troops on the ground, airplanes in the air and ships at sea. Today, digitally produced uniform camouflage patterns can be made to resemble desert sand.
Camouflage helps animals blend in with their natural surroundings, making them less likely to be discovered by predators. Can you find the turtle in this photograph?
Photo by Robert M. Ungerer
A personal experience revealed how effective a hunter's head-to-toe camouflage can be. One morning in May five years ago while I was sitting against a tree trunk wider than my frame and waiting for a turkey to answer my call, a male pileated woodpecker (the crow sized woodpecker which became the model for the "Woody Woodpecker" cartoon character) landed 10 feet above me on the same tree I was leaning against. The early morning sun reflected off his beautiful and intensely red crest. Searching for insects under the bark, he inched lower, unaware of my presence. I thought, "Wait a minute. Is this woodpecker going to perch on my head to peck at my skull?" I purposely moved to startle him, and to my relief he flew away.
Numerous methods of camouflage have evolved in nature. Examples of color and pattern camouflage include raised bumps on the brown and gray back of the common toad, making it blend in with dead leaves on the ground just as the white spots on the back of a baby white-tailed deer (fawn) help it hide among wild flowers in a meadow. Disruptive coloration, like horizontal stripes on zebras, makes it difficult for an attacking lion or leopard to select one zebra from the blur of the fleeing herd. Shading of the eye, with a black stripe across the eye, common in fish, hides the eye from the predator's view. Wolves and their descendants, dogs, often have eyes within dark face spots, thereby hiding the eye from prey as the stalking wolf lurks hidden in shadows of the woods. Counter shading is evident when a trout with a dark back and light colored underside blends in with the dark water, hiding it from hunting eagles above, while a light underside when observed from below by predator fish blends with the sky overhead.
Mimicry is evident in the case of the viceroy butterfly, which closely resembles coloring of the common monarch butterfly. The monarch has a chemical on its body making it distasteful to birds. The viceroy takes advantage of this fact since birds learn to avoid the monarch; birds likewise avoid the similarly colored viceroy.
In the 20th century, military uniform camouflage patterns became more specific for fighting in jungles, deserts and snow. The book, "The War Magician" chronicles the intriguing story of Jasper Maskelyne, a British magician and head of the British Camouflage Department, who used deception during World War II by disguising tanks as trucks and creating illusions of numerous attacking tanks using homemade mirrors.
One author of a children's book states, camouflage is used every day by teenagers to look older and for adults to look younger. It is called makeup!