How Camouflaged Insects Protect Themselves in Nature

These camouflaged insects and bird use their coloring and shapes to blend into nature's landscape and keep themselves safe from predators.

| April/May 2003

Learn how camouflaged insects and birds are able to protect themselves in nature.

In nature, things are not always as they seem.

The firefly, a male Photinus pyralis, winks his best come-on wink as he flies through the summer night: Turning on his light for precisely half a second while swooping upward, he scribes a tiny illuminated "j" in the blackness. Light off, he cruises seven seconds, then — swoop, blink, another "j." Over and over, he trips his light fantastic in seven-second cadence. On the grass below, an appreciative female answers each "j" three seconds later with a half-second glow, a response that identifies her as a P. pyralis too, and a willing one at that. Encouraged, he draws near and lands next to his newfound mate. The female turns to him, grasps him in her forelegs — and, crushing his body between powerful jaws, devours her would-be lover's juicy innards.

Such are the dining habits of female Photuris fireflies, a whole different genus. Having cracked the code of the others' love talk, they lure in tasty Photinus males — and meals — by mimicking the come-hither flashes of Photinus females.

Sneaky? Yes, but hardly unique in nature. Mimicry — the practice of imitating something you're not to gain some kind of advantage — is widespread. Bugs do it, birds do it, reptiles and amphibians and even mammals do it. It's a predator-eats-prey world out there, and a little evolved trickery can mean survival.

Camouflaged Insects: Hiders and Hollerers

The simplest form of mimicry is Camouflage. The fundamental idea with camo, though, is not to imitate some other creature, but some other thing. The benefit in a locust treehopper resembling a locust thorn, a toad the pebbles on which it hops, a snake the leaves in which it slithers, is plain. A predator is less likely to bother you when you seem inanimate and inedible.

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