Animals use camouflage to hide from and confuse predators and prey. For some such animals, their natural appearance mimics, matches, and fades into their surroundings. Others actively shift shape, texture or color to blend in. This amazing ability to hide in plain sight has evolved in parallel across thousands of species, and each animal’s cloaking technique is unique.
“They all need to look invisible,” says zoologist Martin Stevens of the University of Cambridge, “but the mechanisms can be quite varied.” Recent research has focused on how some rare species—cuttlefish, for instance—can even tailor their quick changes to deter different predators. In the following gallery, we capture some of North America’s most ingenious disappearing acts.
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Off the Hook
Here, a speckled sanddab nestles into the ocean floor, its skin mottled to mimic the pebbly background. A member of the flounder family, Citharichthys stigmaeus can change its topside appearance with cells called chromatophores. Pigment granules in these cells migrate closer to the cell surface to create patterns on its brown skin. This camouflage hides the fish from predators off the Pacific coast where it’s found and enables it to surprise its prey—smaller bony fishes, shrimp and worms.
Ebony and Ivory
Its unique black-and-white coloring helps the many-spotted tiger moth both stand out and blend in. Native to the western U.S., this moth may feed on mildly toxic plants like milkweed, taking the plant poisons into its own body as a natural defense against predators. Most often, the species’ white body advertises “I taste bad” to birds who spot it flying in the air, says biologist Rebecca Simmons of the University of North Dakota. But when it comes to rest against a dappled background, like the one pictured here, Hypercompe permaculata’s coloring also breaks up the outline of its body, allowing it to blend in and hide from birds that might not heed its white warning.
Hide Your Young
Huddled together against a rocky Canadian cliff face, a typical nesting site, these two gyrfalcon chicks blend into the marbled stone. Adult Falco rusticolus patrol the air in arctic regions, feeding on their tundra neighbors, the well-hidden ptarmigan and other smaller birds. Gyrfalcons are clad in inconspicuous gray, white and brown feathers, with a light underside.
The round object in the center-right of this photo is no rock—it’s a rock ptarmigan hiding motionless among the stones and moss of the Alaskan tundra. (Look for its beak to spot its head.) In the winter snow, Lagopus muta exchanges its brown feathers for white, maintaining year-round protection from its main predator, the gyrfalcon. In the spring, males retain their white feathers after the snow disappears, advertising themselves to potential mates. Once they’ve mated, and before the brown feathers grow back, males roll around in the dirt, creating a makeshift camouflage, which is eventually replaced by a summer disguise like the one on the female shown here.
A Cross to Bear
Known for its distinctive high-pitched call, the spring peeper frog’s coloring ranges from grayish to reddish brown, a fitting adaptation to the leaves and dead grass of its wooded habitat in the eastern and midwestern United States. Darker markings, including the cross on its back, help break up Pseudacris crucifer’s silhouette against its surroundings. To add to the illusion, the tiny frog can also adjust its hue slightly within the gray-brown range to better match its environment.