We may marvel at the brilliantly changing hues of an octopus and the subtleties of the stick insect, but camouflage in the animal world is millions of years old.
Last week researchers from Ireland, the UK and Spain reported a 10-million-year-old fossilised snake preserved in such a way they could reconstruct different types of pigment cells. The snake, they say, could have produced yellows, greens, blacks, browns and iridescence.
And some of the oldest evidence for camouflage was published in 2014 and comes from the Cretaceous period, with ancient turtle and dinosaur fossils (including the vicious ichthyosaur) showing traces of dark eumelanin pigment in their soft tissue.
Unfortunately (or, in the case of dinosaurs, fortunately), these species are no longer around today. So let’s take a look at some of the animal kingdom’s lesser-known hide-and-seek experts.
Some of the smallest seahorses in the world, pygmy seahorses dwell in the waters around Southeast Asia. Their bodies are covered in fringed and knobbled “tubercles” that perfectly meld with their soft-coral or seagrass homes.
These little creatures feed by sucking water, and filtering it, through their fused jaws.
Insects in the family Phylliidae are, unsurprisingly, nicknamed “walking leaves”. They were first described by Italian scholar Antonio Pigafetta on Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation from 1519-1522:
In this island are also found certain trees, the leaves of which, when they fall, are animated, and walk. They are like the leaves of the mulberry tree, but not so long; they have the leaf stalk short and pointed, and near the leaf stalk they have on each side two feet.
Found from Australia up to South Asia, they’re an ancient family – a fossilised 47-million-year-old relative looked incredibly similar to those living today.
The eyes give it away. This leaf-tailed gecko in the genus Uroplatus (“ourá” meaning “tail” and “platys” meaning “flat”) is found in Madagascar. Being a nocturnal creature, it emerges to hunt under the cover of darkness.
Leaf-tailed geckos are also found in Australia, with a new species Saltuarius eximius described in 2013 by Queensland zoologists.
This is one nasty fish. Not only is it the master of disguise – the reef stonefish is also the most venomous fish in the world.
Found patrolling coral reefs in the Indian and Pacific Oceans and feeding on small fish and crustaceans, Synanceia verrucosa has 13 spikes fed by two venom-filled sacs. If you’re unlucky enough to get injected, the venom causes agonising pain and, in some cases, death.
Found across Australia, the tawny frogmouth (Podargus strigoides) spends its nights hunting. But its days aren’t tucked away in the nook of a tree trunk. They prefer to hide in plain sight, perched on a branch with beak aloft and eyes closed, looking all the world like a woody stump.
In winter months, they slip into torpor – bursts of hibernation that last only a few hours.
Clear as day
First described in 1885, the Carribean velvet shrimp (Metapenaeopsis goodei) is only a couple of centimetres long. But rather than colouring its surface to blend into its surroundings, the little crustacean goes a step further.
Here its semi-transparent body and bright red organs blend in with the moss animal “bleeding teeth” bryozoan (Trematooecia aviculifera).
Belinda Smith is a science and technology journalist in Melbourne, Australia.
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