PROTECTIVE COLOURATION   Leave a comment

 

Monarch butterfly

DEFINITION: (or colouring) natural colouration of certain organisms allowing them to blend in with their normal environment and escape detection by enemies.

As animals evolved, most of them developed body colours and markings that improved their chances of surviving. This adaptive mechanism, known as protective colouration, may serve any number of functions. Colouring can help protect an animal by making it hard to see. For an animal that spends much of its life trying to avoid dangerous enemies, this is the most useful function. Thus protective colouration is often found among the most helpless creatures those who have little or no other means of defence A white snow hare, for example, blends into its white surroundings and so becomes less visible to predators.

Conversely, colour can help an organism by making it more conspicuous the bright colours of a poisonous snake may warn off intruders, for example. In general, the purpose of protective colouration is to decrease an organism’s visibility or to alter its appearance to other organisms. Sometimes several forms of protective colouration are superimposed on one animal.

Types of Protective Colouration

There are a variety of protective colouration schemes. Each works in a slightly different manner.

Cryptic colouration helps disguise an animal so that it is less visible to predators or prey. One of the most common types of cryptic colouration is background matching, which may take various forms. Many helpless animals have developed colours and markings that match their surroundings in order to hide from predators. Fish eggs and microscopic zoo plankton, for example, are transparent and nearly invisible as they drift in the upper layers of oceans and freshwater lakes. A fawn’s spotted coat camouflages the animal against the speckled forest floor. Some animals attempt to camouflage themselves physically. The decorator crab, for example, cements bits of algae, seaweed, and other ocean debris onto its shell so that it resembles the ocean floor.

Grasshoppers and other insects that live among green plants are often green, and insects that live in the soil, such as ants, are often earth-coloured. The pepper moth has coloured patches that camouflage it against the tree on which it lives. The Sargasso sea dragon lives amid masses of floating algae. The fish is not only coloured to match the plants, but its fins and scales are even shaped like algae. The oriental leaf butterfly, which lives on leaf-littered forest floors, is so intricately and completely camouflaged that its markings include leaf veins and a stem.

Sometimes it is the predator that is camouflaged. Certain predatory fish, for example, blend in with harmless schooling fish and then prey on members of the school. Some species of groupers are camouflaged against the ocean floor as they lie motionless, waiting for prey to swim by.

Certain animals can change their colour in response to different environments or situations. Certain lizards are well known for their ability to match their colour to their surroundings. Varying hares change colours with the season: through the winter their fur is white, and as the snow disappears, their fur turns brown. Thus they remain camouflaged throughout the year.

Another form of cryptic colouration is called disruptive colouration, a scheme in which spots, stripes, or other colour patterns visually break up an animal’s outline. Such patterns may mask the animal’s true shape or make it difficult for a predator to visually resolve it from a colourful or similarly disruptive background. Predators, such as the cheetah, tiger, and leopard, may use their disruptive colouration to avoid being seen. The spots or stripes on their fur allow them to get close to their prey before being observed, improving their chances of getting food. Many fishes and certain birds exhibit disruptive colouration, as do some snakes. The boa constrictor, a tree dweller that grows to several feet in length, is marked with a complex pattern of spots and stripes so complete that a stripe even extends across its eyes. Some patterns of disruptive colouration operate on the same principle to conceal movement. Snakes that are concentrically banded, for example, are difficult to detect when they move between long blades of grass.

A third form of cryptic colouration is counter shading, designed to mask an organism’s three-dimensional form. Many animals, particularly vertebrates, are counter shaded, or shaded lighter on their lower surfaces and darker on their upper surfaces. This colouration counteracts the effects of overhead light, which accentuates an animal’s three-dimensional form by lightening the animal’s upper body and casting its lower body into shadow.

Counter shading gives the body a more uniform darkness and less depth relief so that the animal is less conspicuous.

Many marine animals are counter shaded so that they will not appear as silhouettes when seen from below. A silhouetted organism would be conspicuous and thus attract predators. When viewed from above, counter shaded marine animals blend into the darkness of the sea bottom; when viewed from below, their light lower bodies match the appearance of the water’s surface.

Alluring colouration Some animals are coloured so that a predator’s attention is drawn to a non-vital part of the animal’s body. The lizard known as the blue-tailed skink has a bright blue tail that the animal can shed at will with no harm to itself. Potential predators are attracted to the tail; if they attack the tail, the skink sheds it and darts away unharmed.

Monarch butterfly, insect (Danaus plexippus) of the order Lepidoptera, family Danaidae; breeds on milkweeds.

Warning colouration is intended not to camouflage an organism but to make it more noticeable. Such colouration is found among animals that have natural defences that they use to deter or fend off predators. These defences can take many forms. An animal may simply cause a disagreeable smell (such as a skunk’s odour), or it may actually cause pain (as from bee’s sting) or even death (as from snake’s venom). Many of these animals are brightly coloured, presumably as a warning to potential aggressors. The monarch butterfly, for example which bears a conspicuous pattern of bright orange and black has such a disagreeable taste that a bird will often regurgitate after eating it. Behavioural biologists believe that predatory animals learn to associate such brightly coloured animals with unpleasant or painful experiences and therefore are likely to pass them up as potential prey in favour of a more drab animal. Common warning colours are red, black, and yellow.

Dewlap, in reptile anatomy, a hanging fold of skin under the neck.

Some organisms can change their colour from drab to bright when threatened. The octopus, for example, turns white when agitated and red when it is suddenly frightened. Certain chameleons, usually camouflaged, display a brightly coloured throat sac, or dewlap, as a warning signal to invaders. Furthermore, when a male chameleon enters another’s territory, the dewlap display of the territory’s “owner” serves as a warning to keep out.

Fin, in zoology, external membrane used for propulsion in water.

Other forms of protective colouration Some animals are coloured in such a way that they draw attention to themselves only when they are in motion. Certain birds have light-coloured feathers that are visible only during flight. When the bird comes to rest, these feathers are tucked under darker feathers, so that the bird is once again inconspicuous. Similarly, many fishes have colourful dorsal fins that are extended while the fish is swimming then folded down when the fish is at rest.

In both cases, the animal can use its colouration to perform a sort of disappearing act. It can draw a predator away from a certain area, perhaps a nest of vulnerable offspring, by catching the predator’s attention and moving to another location. If the predator pursues the decoy, the bird or fish can disappear by coming to rest.

Some organisms imitate the protective colouration of others. This phenomenon is known as mimicry. A harmless animal may display the same warning colouration as a dangerous or inedible one in order to deceive predators into reacting as though the benign animal had the same defences as its model. In other cases, several noxious species will share a similar warning colouration so that potential predators will generalize and avoid all species with such colouring

Evolution of Protective Colouration

The intricate schemes of protective colouration are the results of long-term evolution. Through aeons of adaptive changes, certain organisms have acquired patterns of colouration that have helped them survive and reproduce.

Effective forms of protective colouration have been passed on to following generations. The processes of mutation, natural selection, and reproduction have combined to produce many organisms with colourations that are fine-tuned to their individual environments and their individual protective needs.

Assisted by Elliot Mitchell, science teacher, Latin School of Chicago.

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