Walk in the Woods: Camouflage often means life or death for many wildlife
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TRURO, NS – While walking through the woods recently on one of the many snowless days we’ve had so far in January, I saw a ruffed grouse fly up from where it had been sitting on the ground in a pile of bushes. Looking closer I could see something white that seemed to be bouncing around. I quietly stepped closer and could see a white weasel jumping through the low bushes.
Although too fast and stealthy for a photo, the weasel was a treat to watch. Unique in appearance, it had a long, slender body with short legs. Its rolling, jumping motion, back and forth and up and down, created a movement pattern like a caterpillar.
One interesting thing about the sighting is that it was so easy to spot in its brilliant white coat against the snow-free, dark background. It was a sitting duck, only it was a walking weasel. The experience raised questions about the pros and cons of the natural adaptation that causes certain animals to turn winter white to blend in with their usual habitat. Under “normal” winter conditions in January, the weasel would have blended in very well with the surrounding snow and I might not have been able to see it. However, in this warming climate situation we are observing, the switch to white fur could also endanger the creature’s well-being unless the environment is wintry white and doesn’t help it adapt.
Nature’s camouflage is a defensive adaptation in which organisms are able to disguise their appearance to blend in with their environment. By blending in, creatures hide their location, identity, and movement. This allows vulnerable wildlife, which are prey species, to evade or hide from predators. It also allows predators to hide from or sneak up on unsuspecting prey. An example of this is the rock flounder, a flatfish that burrows under sand to blend in while waiting for its prey.
The term camouflage refers to the use of a combination of materials, lighting, or coloration that makes the animal difficult to spot. Some types of camouflage are also used to disguise animals as something else. It is amazing to imagine how some species of wild animals can change the color of their skin and coat.
Obviously, different animals use different camouflage tactics. For example, furry animals use different tactics than those with scales and feathers. The color change in an animal like a weasel takes weeks to transition from its normal brown torso and head coloration to white. In contrast, animals with scales can quickly lose and change color.
The camouflage effect can be created in two ways, with the help of color pigments or with physical structures. Octopuses are known to be creatures of many colors depending on the situation. They have microscopic pigments called biochromes that absorb and reflect light that changes the animal’s color appearance. Polar bears have specific physical structures in their hair that scatter light of all colors in such a way that the impressive animal appears white.
Probably the most well-known animal in Nova Scotia that makes good use of camouflage through changing coat colors is the snowshoe hare. The length of daylight triggers the shedding. In spring, rabbits shed their white winter coats for their warm-season brown colors. Similarly, the brown coat is replaced with white when day length decreases to a certain amount in later fall. This process takes eight to ten weeks.
Other animals that use camouflage are: owls, toads, frogs, spiders, snakes, geckos, stick insects and snow leopards.
The adaptation that has occurred over untold years that allows wildlife to use various forms of camouflage to survive and thrive is another amazing example of the natural world around us that we need to protect and enjoy.
Don Cameron is a registered professional Forrester