15 Amazing Camouflaged Animals

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Blending in

Photo: Chantelle Bosch/Shutterstock

Talk about environmental awareness — these animals don't just know their surroundings, they are their surroundings. Or at least that's what their enemies think.

Camouflage is an ancient art, likely not much younger than vision itself, and species around the planet depend on it daily for survival. Whether it's a gecko blending into bark, a jaguar fading into foliage or a Peringuey's viper sliding through sand (pictured), good camo can mean the difference between eating and being eaten. Humans have learned many lessons from Mother Nature's masquerades over the years, but as the following photos suggest, there's also plenty we haven't seen.

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Common baron caterpillar

Photo: Wohin Auswandern/Flickr

If you're a hungry bird in western Malaysia, good luck finding any common baron caterpillars. Plenty of other butterfly larvae blend in with local plants, but few can vanish into vegetation like the baron.

Baron caterpillars evolved their elaborate shapes and colors for that single purpose: hiding from predators. This boosts their odds of becoming common baron butterflies, and therefore reproducing. Native to India and Southeast Asia, barons often feed on the leaves of mango trees, like this one in a Kuala Lumpur garden. That can sour their relationship with mango farmers, though — yet another reason camo comes in handy.

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Pygmy seahorse

Photo: Eugene Sim/Shutterstock

Coral reefs are rough places to live, so their residents often use camouflage to stay safe. And when it comes to living incognito among coral, the pygmy seahorse wrote the book.

Less than an inch long and studded with coral-like "tubercles," this seahorse has all its evolutionary chips on just two species of gorgonian corals in the Pacific Ocean (with a matching color pattern for each). It blends in so well, though, that it was only discovered by humans after showing up with wild-caught corals in an aquarium. It mates in pairs that may be monogamous, according to the IUCN, but its conservation status is unknown due to insufficient data.

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Mossy leaf-tailed gecko

Photo: JialiangGao/Wikimedia Commons

It may look like this lizard has been overrun with moss, but save your sympathy — that's its skin. This is the mossy leaf-tailed gecko, a master of disguise found only in the forests of Madagascar.

Since these geckos live in trees, they've evolved moss- and bark-colored skin, complete with "dermal flaps" that break up their outline (see this photo for an example). But they also have another trick up their sleeves: Much like chameleons, they can change their skin color to match the background.

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Eastern screech owl

Photo: Christopher MacDonald/Shutterstock

The Eastern screech owl is a master of disguise, according to the Cornell Lab Bird Academy. Its brown, gray and white coloring blends in beautifully with the bark of trees, where the owl hides in cavities. It also has feathers sticking up from its head that break up its outline and make it harder to see, explains the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"Even when the owl perches on a branch, it is still difficult to distinguish it from a broken snag. When hidden like this, they’re hard for even experienced birders to spot," the Bird Academy says.

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Tawny frogmouth

Photo: C.Coverdale/Wikimedia Commons

Famous for their gaping beaks and big yellow eyes, tawny frogmouths look like cartoon characters — when they're not imitating a tree, that is. If they suspect danger, they simply close their eyes, tilt back their heads and blend into the bark, as the one on the left is doing in this photo.

Although they are related to owls, tawny frogmouths are very different birds. They're poor fliers, for one, and don't use their talons to catch prey. In fact, they don't even fly to hunt — instead, they sit eerily still in trees, letting their prey to come to them. They are nocturnal like owls, but mainly eat insects, trapping them in their froglike mouths. They make a nasal, grunting call, which can sometimes be heard on quiet nights in their native Australia and Tasmania.

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Photo: Steve Childs/Flickr

If you're ever snorkeling in the Indian or Pacific Ocean, look out for coral reefs looking back at you. You could be staring down a stonefish, the most venomous fish on Earth.

This stonefish was photographed in Indonesia, but its relatives live in shallow coastal waters from Egypt to Australia. They blend in with a variety of reefs and rocks — hence their name — and hide on the sea floor, waiting to ambush prey. But as a defense, they also have 13 sharp dorsal spines packed with a potent neurotoxin, which reportedly can kill a human within two hours. To avoid stepping on one, experts recommend swimming instead of walking in the ocean. If you must walk, shuffle your feet instead of taking big steps.

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Photo: SaraYeomans/Flickr

If you don't immediately see both katydids in this photo, don't feel bad. Their leaflike bodies also help them evade countless birds, frogs, snakes and other predators around the world.

Katydids are typically not seen but heard, rubbing their wings together to make the namesake "katy-did" sound. Unlike their cricket relatives, however, katydids produce egalitarian music, with both males and females chiming in. Some prey on smaller insects, but their favorite food — foliage — is obvious from their appearance. And much like caterpillars, katydids' love of leaves often puts them at odds with farmers and gardeners, just one more group of predators who struggle to see through their camouflage.

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Photo: Eugene Sim/Shutterstock

As a type of "flatfish," flounder are ideally suited to life on the ocean floor. They huddle up to the seabed, often aided by speckled skin that helps them blend in, such as this pebble-dwelling flounder. That offers safety from predators, but also lets them ambush prey like shrimp, worms and fish larvae.

Flounder begin life as larvae themselves, but undergo a dramatic metamorphosis as they approach adulthood. One eye drifts to the other side of a young flounder's head, letting it swim flat with both eyes looking up. Despite their camouflage, though, many flounder are at risk from overfishing, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch. If you're a flounder fan, opt for Pacific rather than Atlantic varieties, specifically avoiding Atlantic dab, sole and hirame.

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Egyptian nightjar

Photo: K K/Wikimedia Commons

Nightjars are small, nocturnal birds found around the world, often called "goatsuckers" due to a myth about stealing goats' milk (they do hang out near goats, but just to eat the insects they attract). Most nightjars nest on the ground, and many have evolved feathers to match — such as this young Egyptian nightjar, seen resting in its desert habitat.

Egyptian nightjars are one of the few birds known to thrive in deserts, where their drab feathers blend in perfectly with the arid soil. While the species overall is currently declining, it isn't thought to be endangered, largely thanks to its vast range, which includes North Africa, the Middle East and southwest Asia.

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Arctic fox

Photo: Ignatiev Alexandr/Shutterstock

It may seem bland at first glance, but an Arctic fox's ghostly, almost-blue coat is ideal attire on the tundra. Not only does it disappear in snow and defy temperatures as low as 58 below zero, but it also changes colors for summer, letting the fox hide among rocks and plants.

Arctic foxes mostly hunt birds, rodents and fish, but even their fur can't always help them find food in the dead of winter. When out of options, they sometimes shadow polar bears to scavenge scraps from their kills. They'll also eat tundra vegetables when in season.

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Photo: Jordi Prat Puig/Shutterstock

Few animals are as famous for camouflage as chameleons, whose color-changing skills have made them icons of adaptability. But that probably wasn't the reason they evolved the ability — instead, scientists think they mainly change colors to communicate.

Certain hues signal certain moods: Some advertise anger, others mean "I'm ready to mate!" And while this color code may be why chameleons evolved shifty skin, many have clearly seen its value as camo, too. Some even target specific predators — one species in South Africa blends in with the ground to avoid birds, but blends in with the sky to avoid snakes. The key is the chromatophore, a type of pigmented cell layered underneath chameleons' transparent outer skin.

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Photo: Bex Ross/Flickr

This jaguar may be at a zoo in the U.K., but not even England is immune to its versatile fur. Like many cats, jaguars have evolved vague, spotty patterns that blend into a variety of backgrounds, including some far from home.

Jaguars are the only true big cat native to the Americas, a world apart from the other three Panthera species: lions, tigers and leopards, all Old World cats. But while jaguars' spots help them hide from some zoo-goers, they haven't helped the species escape people in general — once widespread across North and South America, jaguars are now restricted to the latter, plus some Central American holdouts and possibly a few in Mexico. The last known U.S. jaguar died in 2009.

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Stick insect

Photo: Leonardo Mercon/Shutterstock

While most animals need a specific backdrop for their camouflage to work, a few are so well-disguised they're incognito almost anywhere. Stick insects are a good example, with twig-like bodies that let them become virtually invisible just by holding still.

A wide variety of stick insects exist around the world, ranging in size from half an inch to two feet long. Often colored brown or green, they tend to freeze when threatened, sometimes swaying to mimic a branch blowing in the wind. That's not to say they can't be assertive, though — the American stick insect, for example, can spray a mild acid from two glands in its thorax to thwart would-be predators. If it gets in your eyes, it can burn and even cause temporary blindness.

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Photo: Paul Kli/Wikimedia Commons

Cuttlefish take camo to new heights. Not only can they change colors to blend in, but their psychedelic skin even puts chameleons to shame. Every square millimeter holds up to 200 color-changing chromatophores, layered atop other cells that reflect light. And below those, they also have tiny muscles that can mimic the texture of rocks and reefs (like this broadclub cuttlefish).

Cuttlefish aren't really fish — they're "cephalopods," a family of aquatic mollusks that also includes octopus and squid. Their appearance-altering skills go beyond mere camouflage, too, letting them glow wildly with color and light, as seen in this video clip:

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Photo: U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Jose D. Lujano/DVIDSHUB/Flickr

Humans don't naturally blend in with much, and aside from blushing, we can't change colors like chameleons or cuttlefish. But we do use one kind of camo few other species have: clothes. We've made DIY disguises for centuries, often borrowing ideas from nature to help us hunt food and fight wars.

Man-made camo has found lots of other uses over the years, too, such as scientists dressing up as whooping cranes or nude models being painted like tigers, not to mention all the disguises people make every Halloween. And now even the ultimate form of camo is within sight: Scientists at the University of St. Andrews reported in 2010 that they're developing an invisibility cloak.