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Caleb Bell
Caleb Bell


Camouflage is the use of any combination of materials, coloration, or illumination for concealment, either by making animals or objects hard to see, or by disguising them as something else. Examples include the leopard's spotted coat, the battledress of a modern soldier, and the leaf-mimic katydid's wings. A third approach, motion dazzle, confuses the observer with a conspicuous pattern, making the object visible but momentarily harder to locate, as well as making general aiming easier. The majority of camouflage methods aim for crypsis, often through a general resemblance to the background, high contrast disruptive coloration, eliminating shadow, and countershading. In the open ocean, where there is no background, the principal methods of camouflage are transparency, silvering, and countershading, while the ability to produce light is among other things used for counter-illumination on the undersides of cephalopods such as squid. Some animals, such as chameleons and octopuses, are capable of actively changing their skin pattern and colours, whether for camouflage or for signalling. It is possible that some plants use camouflage to evade being eaten by herbivores.


Military camouflage was spurred by the increasing range and accuracy of firearms in the 19th century. In particular the replacement of the inaccurate musket with the rifle made personal concealment in battle a survival skill. In the 20th century, military camouflage developed rapidly, especially during the First World War. On land, artists such as André Mare designed camouflage schemes and observation posts disguised as trees. At sea, merchant ships and troop carriers were painted in dazzle patterns that were highly visible, but designed to confuse enemy submarines as to the target's speed, range, and heading. During and after the Second World War, a variety of camouflage schemes were used for aircraft and for ground vehicles in different theatres of war. The use of radar since the mid-20th century has largely made camouflage for fixed-wing military aircraft obsolete.

Non-military use of camouflage includes making cell telephone towers less obtrusive and helping hunters to approach wary game animals. Patterns derived from military camouflage are frequently used in fashion clothing, exploiting their strong designs and sometimes their symbolism. Camouflage themes recur in modern art, and both figuratively and literally in science fiction and works of literature.

Camouflage has been a topic of interest and research in zoology for well over a century. According to Charles Darwin's 1859 theory of natural selection,[2] features such as camouflage evolved by providing individual animals with a reproductive advantage, enabling them to leave more offspring, on average, than other members of the same species. In his Origin of Species, Darwin wrote:[3]

The English zoologist Edward Bagnall Poulton studied animal coloration, especially camouflage. In his 1890 book The Colours of Animals, he classified different types such as "special protective resemblance" (where an animal looks like another object), or "general aggressive resemblance" (where a predator blends in with the background, enabling it to approach prey). His experiments showed that swallow-tailed moth pupae were camouflaged to match the backgrounds on which they were reared as larvae.[4][a] Poulton's "general protective resemblance"[6] was at that time considered to be the main method of camouflage, as when Frank Evers Beddard wrote in 1892 that "tree-frequenting animals are often green in colour. Among vertebrates numerous species of parrots, iguanas, tree-frogs, and the green tree-snake are examples".[7] Beddard did however briefly mention other methods, including the "alluring coloration" of the flower mantis and the possibility of a different mechanism in the orange tip butterfly. He wrote that "the scattered green spots upon the under surface of the wings might have been intended for a rough sketch of the small flowerets of the plant [an umbellifer], so close is their mutual resemblance."[8][b] He also explained the coloration of sea fish such as the mackerel: "Among pelagic fish it is common to find the upper surface dark-coloured and the lower surface white, so that the animal is inconspicuous when seen either from above or below."[10]

The artist Abbott Handerson Thayer formulated what is sometimes called Thayer's Law, the principle of countershading.[11] However, he overstated the case in the 1909 book Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, arguing that "All patterns and colors whatsoever of all animals that ever preyed or are preyed on are under certain normal circumstances obliterative" (that is, cryptic camouflage), and that "Not one 'mimicry' mark, not one 'warning color'... nor any 'sexually selected' color, exists anywhere in the world where there is not every reason to believe it the very best conceivable device for the concealment of its wearer",[12][13] and using paintings such as Peacock in the Woods (1907) to reinforce his argument.[14] Thayer was roundly mocked for these views by critics including Teddy Roosevelt.[15]

The English zoologist Hugh Cott's 1940 book Adaptive Coloration in Animals corrected Thayer's errors, sometimes sharply: "Thus we find Thayer straining the theory to a fantastic extreme in an endeavour to make it cover almost every type of coloration in the animal kingdom."[16] Cott built on Thayer's discoveries, developing a comprehensive view of camouflage based on "maximum disruptive contrast", countershading and hundreds of examples. The book explained how disruptive camouflage worked, using streaks of boldly contrasting colour, paradoxically making objects less visible by breaking up their outlines.[17] While Cott was more systematic and balanced in his view than Thayer, and did include some experimental evidence on the effectiveness of camouflage,[18] his 500-page textbook was, like Thayer's, mainly a natural history narrative which illustrated theories with examples.[19]

Experimental evidence that camouflage helps prey avoid being detected by predators was first provided in 2016, when ground-nesting birds (plovers and coursers) were shown to survive according to how well their egg contrast matched the local environment.[20]

As there is a lack of evidence for camouflage in the fossil record, studying the evolution of camouflage strategies is very difficult. Furthermore, camouflage traits must be both adaptable (provide a fitness gain in a given environment) and heritable (in other words, the trait must undergo positive selection).[21] Thus, studying the evolution of camouflage strategies requires an understanding of the genetic components and various ecological pressures that drive crypsis.

Camouflage is a soft-tissue feature that is rarely preserved in the fossil record, but rare fossilised skin samples from the Cretaceous period show that some marine reptiles were countershaded. The skins, pigmented with dark-coloured eumelanin, reveal that both leatherback turtles and mosasaurs had dark backs and light bellies.[22] There is fossil evidence of camouflaged insects going back over 100 million years, for example lacewings larvae that stick debris all over their bodies much as their modern descendants do, hiding them from their prey.[23] Dinosaurs appear to have been camouflaged, as a 120 million year old fossil of a Psittacosaurus has been preserved with countershading.[24]

Many cephalopods have the ability to actively camouflage themselves, controlling crypsis through neural activity. For example, the genome of the common cuttlefish includes 16 copies of the reflectin gene, which grants the organism remarkable control over coloration and iridescence.[25] The reflectin gene is thought to have originated through transposition from symbiotic Aliivibrio fischeri bacteria, which provide bioluminescence to its hosts. While not all cephalopods use active camouflage, ancient cephalopods may have inherited the gene horizontally from symbiotic A. fischeri, with divergence occurred through subsequent gene duplication (such as in the case of Sepia officinalis) or gene loss (as with cephalopods with no active camouflage capabilities).[26][3] This is unique as an instance of camouflage arising as an instance of horizontal gene transfer from an endosymbiont. However, other methods of horizontal gene transfer are common in the evolution of camouflage strategies in other lineages. Peppered moths and walking stick insects both have camouflage-related genes that stem from transposition events.[27][28]

The Agouti genes are orthologous genes involved in camouflage across many lineages. They produce yellow and red coloration (phaeomelanin), and work in competition with other genes that produce black (melanin) and brown (eumelanin) colours.[29] In eastern deer mice, over a period of about 8000 years the single agouti gene developed 9 mutations that each made expression of yellow fur stronger under natural selection, and largely eliminated melanin-coding black fur coloration.[30] On the other hand, all black domesticated cats have deletions of the agouti gene that prevent its expression, meaning no yellow or red color is produced. The evolution, history and widespread scope of the agouti gene shows that different organisms often rely on orthologous or even identical genes to develop a variety of camouflage strategies.[31]

While camouflage can increase an organism's fitness, it has genetic and energetic costs. There is a trade-off between detectability and mobility. Species camouflaged to fit a specific microhabitat are less likely to be detected when in that microhabitat, but must spend energy to reach, and sometimes to remain in, such areas. Outside the microhabitat, the organism has a higher chance of detection. Generalized camouflage allows species to avoid predation over a wide range of habitat backgrounds, but is less effective. The development of generalized or specialized camouflage strategies is highly dependent on the biotic and abiotic composition of the surrounding environment.[32] 041b061a72


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