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

A great horned owl blends in beautifully with its nest.

A great horned owl blends in beautifully with its nest.


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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