Camouflage in Nature

Words and photos by Tracey Bruton (except for scops owl in tree photo: Neil Coetzer & common diadem photo: Thomas Botha)

One of the most amazing techniques for survival in the wild is camouflage. Animals have the ability to mimic plants, ground cover, or even other animals in order to hide or hunt.

Camouflage is a colouration or pattern that helps an animal blend in with its surroundings. Animals use various types of camouflage to hide themselves from predators, as well as for predators to hide themselves from potential prey!

There are several different types of camouflage, including concealing colouration, disruptive colouration, disguise, mimicry and counter-shading. Some creatures use more than one type.

We will also look at aposematic colouration, which is not a form of camouflage, but is also a tactic to avoid being eaten.

Concealing colouration

This type is when the colour of the animal matches the colour of the background, as in the ground colour or vegetation that it finds itself. This is the most common form of camouflage. When mottled, it is also known as ‘cryptic colouration’. Examples of these are lions, many antelope species and chameleons.

Lions are examples of fixed camouflage. Their tawny coats help them to blend in to the colours of their savanna habitat. Chameleons have active camouflage- they are able to alter their colouration at will based on where they are (as well as for other reasons, such as mood or stress). Some animals have a seasonal camouflage, which allows the animal to match to its environment at the time, such as the Arctic fox changing from its summer brown colour to its winter white colour to match the winter snow in their habitat.

The tawny colour of lions help them to blend in to the yellow grass of their savanna habitat. Notice that from the back the black markings behind the ears are very distinctive. This is what the rest of the pride including cubs see, and is what is known as a ‘follow me’ sign. This is one of the ways the pride keeps together while on a hunt or walking through long grass.
You can see how beautifully camouflaged these lions are from a distance
Notice how conspicuous the dark mane of male lions are compared to the previous image of the females. This is one of the reasons why the females do most of the hunting – the males have less success being less agile and more conspicuous, but they also spend a lot of time patrolling their territory and protecting their pride

Chameleons are able to change the colour of their bodies. They do this for several reasons, the first to hide from predators and to be concealed in order to creep closer to insect prey. They also change colour according to mood, temperature and other environmental conditions, and to communicate with and display to other chameleons.

They are able to change colours quickly by sending cues by their eyes on their environment. Pigments are mixed within special skin cells called chromatophores, and the distribution of different pigment granules results in the specific colour needed.

Brighter colours are used when interacting with other chameleons, they turn lighter in hot conditions to reflect more heat, and darker when they are cold or angry.

Chameleons are masters of concealment. This flap-necked chameleon has taken on the exact colour of the bush it is in to avoid predation and to get close to prey.
During the day on safari, you may find a chameleon crossing the road. It will change to the colour of the substrate, but this camouflage will be assisted by a slow, shaky movement and a rigid body and raised tail, to make itself look like a leaf blowing in the wind. Quick movement will attract predators!
This chameleon has changed colour to match to the gravel surface, now looking more like a dead twig!
This common duiker uses concealing camouflage to hide in its environment. In addition, it also freezes to hide its position when alarmed, and then suddenly darts away and disappears into the undergrowth. This is where it got its name from – ‘duiker’, meaning ‘diver’ in the Afrikaans language!
I came across this tiny steenbok calf on game drive one morning, and it froze in this spot next to us until we drove away. Young antelope rely on their camouflage, as well as the technique of freezing when in danger. Predators react to movement, so if the prey holds its nerve and stays still, it might be overlooked. They dart away in a flash if this does not work
How perfectly does this rock hyrax blend in to its rocky habitat!
This caracal has managed to catch a Natal spurfowl, which it does aided with its tawny coat camouflaged well against the yellow grass and brown soil of its habitat. First it creeps closer to its prey which it picks up with incredible hearing and sight, and then can launch itself 4-5m into the air to catch birds that fly up in fright, such as this ground-living spurfowl.
Many young antelope are lighter in colour to the dark coloured adults, such as this blue wildebeest calf. This helps it blend into the soil and grass during the long periods it rests at this age. Most antelopes keep their youngsters hidden for a period after birth, which could be from 1-2 days to a few weeks in length. These calves hide in long grass or lush undergrowth, camouflaged and keeping as still as possible to avoid unwanted detection.
Spotted hyenas are born black, and slowly become lighter and reveal their spots with age. Their dark colour helps them to hide in the shadows of their underground dens, where they sit just inside the entrance for long periods of time while their mother is out hunting and scavenging. The disused termite mounds that they use as dens have narrow tunnels which the hyena cubs scurry into at the first sign of danger.
Newborn African wild dog puppies hide at the entrance to their den, also a disused and excavated termite mound. Darker colours and markings set closer together compared to the adults help them to be well camouflaged in the shadows.
This black-backed jackal pup is a lighter colour than its parents to camouflage it against the light sand.
Ostrich chicks which are far more vulnerable to predation than the adults, have concealing colouration but also mottling patterns of the plumage – which is called cryptic colouration.
While this male African paradise flycatcher has vivid breeding colours, his nest is very well camouflaged, so his eggs and chicks can avoid predation. In addition to small twigs, the birds make use of spiderwebs to further help with nest camouflage. Many birds eggs themselves are also cryptically camouflaged, especially the nests of ground-living birds that do not use nests.
Ground-living spiders such as this golden starburst baboon spider are well camouflaged to their environment, using cryptic camouflage. Note the silk-lined burrow to the right of this large female.
The African scops owl is cryptically coloured to help it to blend into its environment, especially when sleeping during the day. Its mottled plumage imitates the bark of a tree, and its ear tufts are raised, making it look like a broken branch.
How beautifully does the African scops owl camouflage against the bark of this tree! (Photo credit: Neil Coetzer)

Counter- shading

Counter-shading is a type of concealing colouration used by animals with a darker upper half, and a lighter lower half. This makes the animal appear more one-dimensional and flatter against the background, but also conceals the animal when viewed from above or below. The darker back matches the dark ground when viewed from above, and the lighter belly will match the lighter sky when viewed from below.

The best examples of this is impala, many snakes, fish and water birds. Other examples in other parts of the world include penguins, sharks and whales.

The impala is a common example of counter-shading colouration. Their upper backs are tawny-brown, their sides are cream, and their bellies are white. This dorsoventral change in contrast breaks up the three dimensional form of the impala, helping it to blend into its environment
This young spotted bush snake shows counter-shading in its dark upper side and light belly, as well as concealing camouflage using green to match to its tree habitat, and disruptive camouflage using spots. When aerial predators such as a bush shrike views the snake from above, its dark upper is camouflaged well against the shaded green depths of trees and bushes. Viewed from below by predators such as bigger snakes, their light underside camouflages them against the brighter sky.                                    *Note: Spotted bush snakes are harmless to humans, but there are many green coloured snakes that are venomous. Only handle a snake if you are 100% sure of its identity

With fish, when viewed by aerial predators from above, their dark shading on the upper half of their body makes them almost invisible against the dark, shady depths, whereas a lighter lower body also renders them less visible to predators approaching from below, against the lighter sky.

From above, these juvenile Mozambique tilapia are well camouflaged against the sand. If they remain still, they are all but invisible to predators such as herons and storks
Young Mozambique tilapia showing counter-shading and banding

Disruptive colouration

In addition to background matching colouration, many animals also have distinctive designs on their bodies to help to conceal them. Spots, stripes or other patterns break up the outline of its body so blending the animal into its environment. The shape of the animal is broken up so that it is almost invisible until it moves!

Most mammals only see in black and white, so disruptive camouflage is really successful for many prey animals and predators.

Examples of disruptive colouration are leopard, cheetah, kudu, zebra, and many ground- living birds and reptiles.

Animals that live in groups use different camouflage tactics to those that live alone.

Zebra, which form herds, have very unique black and white stripes. These stripes are not meant to camouflage them into the environment, but rather to confuse the predator and create a dazzle of stripes – thus their collective name! When a herd of zebra is disturbed by a predator, they clump together and run as a group, and with their stripes creating a confusing black and white mass, it is difficult for the predator to pick one target. This is especially true for zebra foals, which stay close to their mother’s sides for the first year of their lives. They also have very long legs from a young age, which of course allows them to keep up with the herd when running from danger, but also camouflages the foal against his mother as both their bellies are at the same height!

The much-loved zebra, with its black and white stripes, doesn’t seem to camouflage well into its environment like most other animals in the bush do. However this is a method of camouflage and avoiding predation. The stripes firstly break up the animals body outline. Remember that most mammalian predators are colourblind. The stripes mimic the other vertical lines in the bush such as grass, branches and trees. When threatened and running away from a predator, zebras move together as a herd, which at speed looks like a blur of black and white. This makes it difficult for a predator to single out one target.
From birth, a zebra foal has long, gangly legs. This is so it can keep up with the herd soon after birth, but also for camouflage. When standing next to its mother, their legs are the same length, so the little one is well hidden from predators.

Leopards are masters of camouflage. They mostly live in areas where there are patches of light and shadow. Having a solid colour, they would really stand out, but their rosetted coat breaks up their body outline, making them less obvious. Their camouflage is to hide their presence from enemies (such as lions, hyenas and other leopards), but also to hide them from prey. Being solitary hunters, leopards have to sneak up to within about 10m (32ft) of their prey before they pounce. Being a highly adaptive cat living in many different habitats from outskirts of cities to forests, leopards are able to blend in to almost any habitat.

Can you see it? The rosetted coat pattern of the leopard is the perfect disruptive camouflage to help it almost disappear into its habitat, whether on the ground or high in a tree.
Even sitting on a rock, the spotted coat breaks up the outline of the body, making the leopard very difficult to make out.
Can you find the leopard now?!
Look in the middle of the photo to see a few leopard spots!
Leopard cubs have spots that are close together giving them a mottled appearance, therefore helping them to camouflage in dark areas such as this cave, where they stay hidden while mom is away hunting.
This photo is in black and white to show what a prey animal would see. Now you can see how difficult it would be to detect a leopard in the grass. This young leopard is resting, but when hunting, a leopard would crouch down hiding most of its body, especially those large dark rosettes at the back, and even flatten its ears down.
The spotted coats of this female cheetah and her three youngsters allow them to blend well into their environment and be almost invisible to prey or enemies.
The brown and grey concealing colouration in this female kudu is further aided by white vertical stripes on her side. These further break up her outline, and mimic the vertical lines of grass, as well as streaks of sunlight in her thick bush habitat.
This southern tree agama lizard’s colour and patterning matches the bark of the tree. Agamas are able to change their body colour much like chameleons, but the range of colour is not great. Males turn brightly coloured during the breeding season – most noticeably a bright blue head – but can turn quickly back into camouflage colours when under threat.
Another Southern tree agama, perfectly camouflaged on a leadwood tree.
Nightjars are nocturnal birds that display disruptive colouration with variegated colouring. On night safaris you often come across nightjars sitting in the road hawking insects, however during the day when they rest they choose a location on the ground with a background that makes them almost invisible. There is even research to suggest that each individual bird chooses a specific substrate to suit its own unique colour patterns.
A red crested korhaan blending well into the undergrowth with its mottled plumage.
A pair of double-banded sandgrouse – the male has the black and white facial bands. These ground birds characteristically crouch low to the ground when disturbed, using excellent disruptive camouflage on their backs to avoid detection. If feeling immediately threatened they will both explosively take off and fly for some distance.
Most waterbirds and ground birds match their environment very well to avoid detection. This water thicknee blends in well with the dry grass and sand of its riverbank habitat


Disguise and mimicry are very similar, however with disguise, the animal copies a non-living thing such as a leaf or twig, and with mimicry, it copies another living animal. The animal disguises itself in form and in colour to look like an object within its environment.

Adult crocodiles do not have many enemies, but they are well camouflaged in order to swim close to prey in the water or on the waters edge. Their olive green-coloured body and its design can make the crocodile look like a log in the water, especially when swimming through vegetation. Their body is designed to hardly make any ripples, and the eyes and nostrils are on top of the head, leaving the rest of the body underwater to avoid detection.
This stick mantid perfectly resembles a small twig in its environment, which would help it to be overlooked by predators.
This praying mantis has colours that resemble a living leaf or small branch. This would tell you that the two mantids pictured here and above have slightly different habitats to mimic two different parts of the environment. This mantid probably lives in trees, and the one above on the ground among dead twigs and leaf litter.
Can you see the snake? The vine snake (or twig snake) is disguised to look like a branch and uses this camouflage to avoid detection by predators and to ambush its prey.
A close up of the head of the vine snake showing the beautiful colouration. This snake has also puffed its neck up to make itself appear larger, in order to scare enemies away. Note that the vine snake is highly venomous to humans, but is quite placid in nature.
Katydids have evolved so that they look just like broad tree leaves, even showing the leaf veins, and rock from side to side to mimic wind.


Mimicry is the tactic of an animal copying another animal in form and/or colour. It may not seem like a form of camouflage, but it is still a way to avoid detection or to avoid being eaten by fooling the predator!

Some creatures pretend that they are dangerous by mimicking the look of a venomous, poisonous or dangerous animal. An example is the common diadem butterfly, which is not poisonous, that looks very  similar to the African monarch butterfly, which is poisonous. This is known as Batesian mimicry.

When two unrelated species that are both poisonous, venomous, distasteful or dangerous mimic each other, this is called Müllerian mimicry. This tactic is meant to reinforce the message of danger to predators.  Examples of this are Acrea butterflies, bees, wasps and some frogs and snakes.

The African monarch butterfly has aposematic colouring to warn predators that it is poisonous. The caterpillar stage feeds on milkweed plants that are toxic and if injested, can kill small birds. Predators have learnt to associate these bright colours with danger.
The female common diadem is a non-poisonous butterfly, but it brilliantly mimics the African monarch butterfly so that it confuses predators to think that it too, is poisonous. (Photo credit: Thomas Botha)
The group of butterflies called the ‘reds’ or Acraea display Müllerian mimicry. They all have red-orange wings with black spots to advertise that they are all poisonous. Their toxicity is due to the poisonous plants that they eat.
The garden Acrea, also red with black spots.

Some birds, invertebrates, fish and reptiles have developed an ‘eye spot’. This is an eye-like marking where this spot on the body resembles false eyes of the creature, or even eyes of a bigger, more ferocious creature, in order to make a predator think twice before attacking it. The false eye may draw the predators attention away from more vulnerable body parts, or appear as an inedible or dangerous animal. Eyespots may also play a role in communication within that species or courtship, as in the eyespots on a male peacocks display feathers.

This pearl-spotted owlet is a hunter, but due to its tiny stature, also has many enemies of its own. Apart of its disruptive colouration camouflage, it also has eye spots on the back of its head (see below).
Predators are reluctant to attack a prey animal when they think they have been seen. The false eyes on the back of the pearl-spotted owlets head make it look like it is always facing forward.
This mopane moth has two sets of false eyes on its fore- and rear wings. These eye spots will draw a predators attention away from the vital head area.
The beautiful eye spots of the cream-striped owl moth. This striking design makes the moth look like a much larger, scarier animal such as an owl, and the predator may ignore it.
There is a theory that cheetah cubs are born with the same black and white markings of the honey badger (see inset) in order to imitate the more ferocious creature. Mortality of cheetah cubs is extremely high, so with this mimicry and aposematic colouration, a predator looking at a cheetah cub might think twice before attacking it.

Aposematic colouration

Aposematic colouration is the advertising by an animal to a predator that it is not worth attacking. This may be due to toxins, venom, a foul taste or smell, sharp spines or an aggressive nature. The warning signal is either with bright colours, or black and white patterns.

Most of the creatures that are brightly coloured are invertebrates, and the group of creatures that mostly eat them are birds. Both of these groups see in vivid colour. Mammals, however, do not see in colour, therefore that is why you do not see brightly coloured antelope walking around in the savanna, but rather many vividly coloured invertebrates, as well as many birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish.

Rather than hiding themselves, some animals use bright warning colouration to signal to would-be predators that they are poisonous or contain venom. The idea is to be seen in order to be avoided.

Invertebrates mostly display aposematic colouration using black with red, orange or yellow to display during the day when it is light. A few examples of these are many butterflies, bees, some grasshoppers and frogs.

Elegant grasshoppers use bright aposematic colouration as a warning they they are poisonous if eaten. They get their toxins from the plants that they eat, and can contain a number of different poisons. They also exude a toxic fluid out of pores in their abdomen if harassed, which makes them taste horrible, also a deterrent against predators.
The bright colouration of this carpenter moth caterpillar warns predators of its poisons.
This female banded-legged golden orb-web spider has beautiful red, orange, yellow and black colouration, which looks like another example of aposematic colouration, but in fact it is not! Orb-web spiders do possess venom in order to subdue prey caught in their web (however are completely harmless to humans) but their bright colours have a different function. The colours in fact help to lure diurnal insect prey into their webs. The insects mistake the brightly coloured spiders for flowers, and especially the yellow colour for pollen, including the golden threads of the web.
The African monarch butterfly is poisonous. The larval caterpillar feeds on noxious plants which creates toxins in the body from the caterpillar, through the pupal stage to the adult. The butterfly displays this to would-be predators with its glaring orange, black and white colouration.
The well-known yellow and black striped colouration of many bees, wasps and bumble bees is a good example of aposematic colouration, but also of Müllerian mimicry, warning predators as a group of their painful stings.

At night, bright colours cannot be seen, and the most visual warning colouration (especially to animals that are colourblind anyway) is black and white. Examples are honey badgers, civets, polecats and porcupines. The former creatures have noxious fluids that they can spray in defence, and porcupines have dangerous sharp quills.

The contrasting black and white coat of a honey badger is a nocturnal danger signal. This is a warning to enemies that they are dangerous (they possess strong jaws, sharp teeth and long sharp claws) and in addition they can spray a noxious scent in the direction of anything that harasses it.
The Viverridae family that African civets belong to all have well-developed anal glands used for scent marking, and the secretion is very pungent. These also use this as a chemical defence against predators, and warn predators against this with their black and white colouration.

In all natural areas around the world, you will see all sorts of variations and combinations on the basic elements of camouflage. Often, these adaptations are more effective than a more aggressive approach using teeth, claws or beaks. After all, being completely overlooked by a predator is better than having to put up a fight!