In nature, survival is the name of the game. Over the millennia, animals have evolved countless ways of avoiding danger, especially to defend themselves against predators. Insects in particular have a stunning array of defenses at their disposal. They run, jump, fly, bite, sting, and pinch. Many have bodies coated with itchy hairs or bristling with sharp, painful spines. Others have bright, conspicuously colored bodies that warn potential predators of their bites, stings, or foul tastes. Some are mimics, sporting the colors and behaviors of pugnacious, bad tasting species, but are in fact harmless themselves. But most insects protect themselves by simply remaining out of sight. And many of them do this with camouflage.
Camouflage, the French word for disguise, first appeared in popular English usage in 1917. To many, the word camouflage brings to mind the color patterns used on military combat uniforms and armaments, patterns that have since been adopted as the “official” garb of many anglers and hunters. But these and other uses of camouflage were all inspired by examples in nature, especially insects.
The simplest type of insect camouflage involves having body colors and patterns that help to conceal their bodies against specific backgrounds in their environment. For example, the leafy green hue of some praying mantids helps them to blend in among shrubs and low growing herbaceous vegetation. In other species, such as the Carolina mantis, gray individuals are better suited for concealment on tree bark. The cryptic lifestyles of these and other predators help them to mask their presence from both predators and prey.
Toad bugs are small, squat, bug-eyed predators with grasping front legs. They hop along the shores of streams and lakes in search of small insect prey.
The shores of streams, rivers, and beaches are frequently occupied with ground dwellers whose body colors and textures are perfectly adapted for living concealed lives along the edge. One of my favorite examples is the aptly named toad bug. These small, squat, bug-eyed predators with grasping front legs hop about the wet sands and fine gravels, ever ready to pounce on even smaller insect prey.
Some grasshoppers and caterpillars have the ability to change their colors to match temporary backgrounds. Locusts can adjust their colors to match dry, open ground or lush, green vegetation. Many caterpillars avoid detection by using counter shading and are usually lighter below and darker above.
Not all cryptic species of insects resemble rocks, sticks, or leaves. The early stages of spicebush swallowtail caterpillars have white and black blotches on their body that makes them look like a bird dropping.
The colors and patterns of these and other insects have developed gradually through the process of natural selection. Individuals that avoid detection by predators through camouflage are able to pass along their favorable traits to their offspring generation after generation. Over time, this continual fine-tuning eventually results in colors and patterns that are ideally suited to enhancing their survival in a particular habitat. But effective camouflage isn’t just about matching colors and blending in. It is also about breaking up the outline of an insect’s body so that it looks less like a prey item to a hungry bird or lizard.
Stick insects look and behave like a stick. During the day stick insects remain almost motionless, lest they give their position away. But sometimes they will gently rock back and forth, as if they were swaying in a breeze.
Another camouflage tactic is to match the color and look of specific objects in the environment. This form of camouflage is called crypsis, a word derived from the Greek word kryptos, meaning to hide or conceal. Cryptic insects not only have the same colors as sticks, leaves (living or dead), and rocks, but their bodies are also shaped to look like them, too. Hungry predators pay little attention to these and other seemingly inedible objects when they are on the prowl for flesh.
Effective crypsis is more than just looks; it’s also about behavior. Cryptic insects have to select the right background and orientation so that color and form blend seamlessly into the right background. Landing on the wrong place, or settling in the right spot but in the wrong direction will inevitably lead to discovery and death.
With its stiff body and gray, bark-like skin, this geometrid moth caterpillar is a dead ringer for a twig.
Once, while walking down a path, I saw a twig-mimicking caterpillar stiffly protruding from the middle of the pavement. Its gray, warty skin was a dead-ringer for a twig. Had it been on a tree or shrub, I never would have noticed it. But for whatever reasons, it had decided to conspicuously take its defensive pose out in the open on a flat, black background.
The java leaf insect, cousin of the stick insect, has a flat, leaf-like body covered by a pair of leaf-like wings, all supported by six leaf-like legs.
Some of the most stunning examples of insect crypsis are species found in tropical rainforests. It is not uncommon to see these insects utilize every part of their body to help them look like something else. Java leaf insects, cousins of stick insects, have a flat, leaf-like body covered by a pair of leaf-like wings, all supported by six leaf-like legs.
This Costa Rican katydid is a dead leaf mimic. Note the markings on the wings suggesting the veins of a leaf.
Of course, no defense strategy is 100% effective. Birds and other sharp-eyed predators can pick up the presence of cryptic insects by their symmetrical shapes. Tropical katydids have gotten around this by having asymmetrical wing shapes and patterns. Each forewing has its own set of spots and notches suggesting leaves that have been randomly attacked by insects and fungus.
Sometimes symmetry is detected by the narrowest of shadows. Many cryptic insects purposely avoid casting shadows by pressing their bodies and appendages tightly against the substrate. Others have fringe lining their bodies and appendages that eliminates shadows altogether.
Every time I go out in search of insects, I am continually fooled by bits of vegetation that appear at first glance to be a cryptic insect. But every now and again I am rewarded for my efforts with yet another surprising example of insect camouflage. This and other revelations are constant reminders that there are lifetimes of insect discoveries to be made.
©2009, A.V. Evans