Do You See What I See? Camouflage and Mimicry of Marine Animals

This discussion topic submitted by Susan Craig ( at 10:16 am on 6/7/00. Additions were last made on Wednesday, May 7, 2014.

Have you ever been in a store and suddenly you see someone who looks familiar? Maybe they were an old college roommate you didnít like, perhaps they were a person you owe money to, or even worse, an old flame that you were not planning on seeing there. All the promises you made to yourself about calling this person, paying the money back or the weight you were going to lose before your high school reunion (because youíd rather be dead than to let "Joe" or "Jane" see you this way) are all plans that at this moment are blown out the window. You tense up, dart down an aisle, suddenly the odor eater foot pads are the most interesting things in the store, but itís too late. The conversation begins, and just like a fly caught in a Venus Fly Trap, no amount of squirming will get you out of this one. If only you could have camouflaged yourself,and remained hidden among the aisles unnoticed.
Unlike ourselves, many organisms in the ocean and forest have the capability to hide and use camouflage. For many reasons and in many ways, creatures of the wild can change their colors and sometimes shapes to be disguised. They can also be colored in such a way to warn off predators. These amazing creatures are blessed with defense mechanisms that have developed through time to ensure their survival. For whatever reason they have these capabilities, it is important to know the purpose and use of each type of camouflage/adaptation and how it ensures the survival of the organism.. This paper will focus mainly on the sea and the many animals who use coloration to their advantage. Both land and sea creatures have the advantage of camouflage. What makes the sea animals different is the amount of light received. Not all areas of the oceans and reefs have the same amount of color; therefore, the type of organisms are different.
In the dictionary camouflage is defined as the ability to conceal by protective coloring or clothing. Alright, maybe an invisibility cape worked for superman, but in reality animals canít vanish that easy. I also have yet to see a chameleon put on Army gear. It does however do something even more amazing, it changes its skin color. Animals camouflage themselves for many reasons. Perhaps they want to hide from an enemy. It could also be that they want to sneak up on their prey. Attracting a mate is yet another common use of camouflage in the wild.. Some organisms are even marked very distinctly so that everyone sees them and knows to stay away. All of these different colorationís are referred to under a blanket term called protective coloration.
Suppose you were wearing green in the grocery store when you saw that person you would rather not talk to. If you made a fast dash to the produce section and stood near the broccoli, this may protect you from the enemy. This type of coloration is referred to as cryptic coloration. This type of coloration helps disguise an animal so that it is less visible to its predators or prey. The most common type of cryptic colorations are organisms that blend in to match their background. Many animals such as the decorator crab and the sea horse change their whole color and appearance to hide from predators. The decorator crab is unique in that its color or appearance change is due to the leaves, sea weed and algae that grows from its back. The sea horse on the other hand is a little more complex. This organism attaches itself to underwater plants and it then changes colors to match its environment. These seahorses are so good at blending in that other fish can hide in the same bush unaware of their presence. This mechanism is important because they are shielded from enemies who would like to have them for lunch. Even better than organisms who blend in, there are some that are transparent all together. An example is Pedersonís Cleaning Shrimp, which live on a host and get their meals by cleaning the larger fish.
Recently I made a trip to Newport Aquarium in Northern Kentucky to check out how cryptic coloration works. One of the more impressive fish that caught my eye, rather that tricked me was a type of flounder that lives on the bottom of the tank. Itís body appears to be laying sideways. After reading about the fish I found that through time the eye of the creature rotates upward and appears to be on the opposite side. What is also amazing is the color on the fish. Its skin has the exact color and markings of the gravel that it lays upon. This is useful for both hiding and hunting, which leads us to another point of view for cryptic coloration.
Letís change the grocery store scenario around. Letís suppose that the last box of Wheaties was bought by a punk college student just as you reached to grab it. This is your favorite cereal and you must have it to start your morning off right. You now become the predator and dress yourself in milk cartons. You hurry to the dairy section and wait patiently for the jerk to stroll by. This sounds silly for humans to try, but in the ocean it is a common occurrence. While cryptic coloration, or blending in, can be good for the animals of prey it can also be used by the predator as well. For example, some groupers are camouflaged to blend in with the sandy ocean floor, where they sit and wait for their prey to swim by. Other predatory fish blend in with large schools of fish and make a meal of itís members. Sneaky fellows, like the Angler fish, are colored to blend in with the dark bottom of the ocean. Their advantage/trickery doesnít stop there. They also have an appendage that sticks out to look like sea weed. Unsuspecting fish come up for a meal on the sea weed and are swallowed whole by the Angler.
Perhaps hiding isnít at all your strategy in the grocery store scenario. You just want to let people know you do not want to be bothered. Animals like the octopus, the cuttlefish and the squid can change their color based on the situation that they are in. The octopus can turn dark black when in danger. Some can even turn bright red to signify pleasure or warn other organisms to stay away. Not only can these organisms change their color to elude the enemy, they can also emit dye to detour them. Wouldnít that little trick be helpful when trying to escape your old friend? Turn bright red and he or she will think twice before they come near you. Being born with these capabilities have helped these organisms to survive for ages.
Another type of cryptic coloration is called disruptive coloration. This type of coloration occurs when organisms are spotted, striped or have other types of patterns to make the animals outline difficult to distinguish. Such patterns make it difficult for its enemy to determine its shape, size or even location. As humans, we could best compare this to a mask or fake mustache. By having a crazy appearance it is nearly impossible for your enemy to identify you. These patterns are useful to the marine organism because they often blend in well with its surroundings. A great example of this type of cryptic coloration is the scorpion fish. Its colorful body is covered with shades and textures that blend in with the coral around it. When its hunters come around, they are confused and sometimes afraid because they can not distinguish its size or exact shape. The crossbow fish, another master of disguise, is colored so sporadically that it is almost impossible for their predators to identify them. With a white spotted belly and a non-patterned blue, black and yellow top, it is difficult to see and measure by even the most clever fish.
Animals like the shark have the third type of cryptic coloration. A sharks underside is white, while itís upper side is gray. This type of coloration is called countershading. Itís light colored underside helps the organism to sneak up on its prey. If the fish looks up, it appears that the white of the shark blends in with the sky. This helps to give the animal less of a three dimensional form as well. When looking down the organism blends in with the darkness of the sea. Not all organisms are like this however. There are many fish that are colored opposite of the shark with light colored tops and dark colored bottoms that deceive their enemies.
A few animals, though not many in the ocean, have what is called alluring coloration. This camouflage is designed to attract an enemy to a non-vital part of the organism. The blue tailed skink, attracts enemies to his blue tail. If the tail is attacked, the skink sheds it and runs away unscathed.
Letís suppose you come across a bright red octopus. What emotion do you suppose he is exhibiting? These colors are what is described as warning coloration. This type of coloration is not intended to camouflage the animal, but to make it more noticeable. It is a lot like the loud, rude Mimi of the Drew Carey Show. It isnít coincidence that every one of her outfits are as loud as her wicked mouth. Many fish and sea organisms have these colors to let their predators or other neighbors know that they are not to be messed with. The most common warning colors are red, black and yellow. Some animals are born with the bright colors while others, like the octopus can change its colors to suit the situation.. Another interesting thing that is found in nature, more often on land than sea, is warning coloration that involves growth of appendages to scare off predators. In addition to appendages, some organisms develop what are called eye spots. While doing research I found that most caterpillars, butterflies and moths exhibit these spots.
Another trick of animals is mimicry. This is when an organism changes its color or behavior to act like another more aggressive or harmful organism. An organism may change its color to display the same characteristics to trick an organism into believing it is harmful or inedible. Even more of a master of disguise are the organisms that can look like parts of plants. Insects, like the caterpillar, are capable of sitting very still and blending. Mimicry in the ocean is especially deceptive because the capabilities of organisms to grow appendages and go through quick changes. Mollusks are noted for doing this. In one of the books that I found, several pictures showed how the organism actually grew pretuberances ( little nubs that are like buds on the plant it is attached to). To the enemy or curious fish, it looks as though it is a regular plant. Other organisms like the Sargasso sea dragon are blessed not only to be the same color as the plants they live in, but also to have appendages that are similar to its leaves.
The whole point to an organisms existence is its survival and to successfully reproduce and pass itís genes on to the next generation. Many of the protective mechanisms that organisms develop have been passed on and changed through time. "As animals evolved, most of them developed body colors and marking that improved their chances of surviving."
All of these forms of coloration are helpful in disguising an organism from its predator and prey . Some organisms are only possible to see when they move. On a web site I was referred to a test that is done using several shapes and a background of color. Each of the shapes are the same color as the back ground. As these shapes (square, triangles and circles) are moved across the background you can see them easily. If you stop however, it is impossible to find where the shape is located. This is true for animals in the wild as well. If an organism sits very still it is difficult to detect. Motion is one of the only ways to see organisms because our eyes are trained for this.
The next time you are out and you run into that old friend with whom you are not so fond of remember the strategies of the many organisms in the world around you. Maybe you cannot grow appendages or change colors, but with a little creativity you might come up with a quick disguise.

1. Ferrari, Marco , COLORS FOR SURVIVAL: MIMICRY ,Thomasson-Grant Publishing 1992.
2. Banks, Edith, NATUREíS CAMOUFLAGE Chartwell Books Inc. 1979.
3. Bull, Ann Scarborough, CREATURES, CORALS AND COLORS IN AMERICAíS SEAS, Audubon Park Press, 1990.
4. Portmann, Adolf, ANIMAL CAMOUFLAGE, Univ. Of Michigan Press.1959
5. Humann, Paul REEF CREATURE IDENTIFICATION, Paramount Miller Graphics, 1996.
6. Davidson, Osha Gray The Enchanted Braid, John Wiley and Sons Inc. 1998


Do you see what I see?
Camouflage and Mimicry of Sea Creatures

Susan Craig
Tropical Marine Ecology
June 9, 2000

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