The Science of Camouflage

By David Nashed

We have all heard of camouflage, whether it be from an episode of National Geographic, or from our elementary school science teacher. However, despite being a topic of frequent discussion, not many are familiar with how camouflage actually works. In this article, we’ll be taking a look at how camouflage works, as well as how it benefits animals living in the wildlife.

Camouflage is, at its essence, a defence mechanism that living organisms use to better hide themselves within their environment. This is done to mask their location, identity, and movements. However, camouflage is a rather broad term, as there isn’t just one type of camouflage; there are actually two!

The first form of camouflage is the most basic one, and refers to organisms born with natural genetic markings that suit their environment. Arctic hares, arctic foxes, and leafy sea dragons are all great examples of organisms that utilize this type of camouflage. Their natural “skin” (fur and scales) have adapted over time to more suitable colours and patterns for their environment. This case of camouflage is purely genetic, and often takes generations to develop.

Image Credit: Flickr @ Steve Sayles

Despite its relative simplicity, this form of camouflage is crucial for the survival of the previously mentioned organisms.

Arctic hares use their white pelts to blend into the arctic tundra, which allows them to avoid predators. Leafy sea dragons use their adapted colours to blend in with nearby vegetation and coral for the exact same reason. Arctic foxes are slightly different, as while they do use their camouflage to avoid predators, they also use it to mask their movements while hunting prey.

The second, and much more complex form of camouflage, refers to organisms who constantly change their colour/pattern to suit their current environment. This is a much more active form of camouflage, and is most commonly seen in chameleons and cephalopods (squids, octopi). The science behind this type of camouflage is very intriguing, and relates to physics, biology, and chemistry.

Chameleons have two layers of superposed iridophore cells— iridescent cells that contain pigment and reflect light. These iridophore cells are what allow chameleons to change their colours, seemingly at a moment’s notice. Iridophore cells contain nanocrystals of different sizes, shapes, and organizations, which play a key role in the chameleons' dramatic color shifts.

Essentially, chameleons can change the arrangement of the upper iridophore cell layer by relaxing or exciting their skin, which leads to a change in color.

Michel Milinkovitch, a professor of genetics and evolution at the University of Geneva, said the following: "When the skin is in the relaxed state, the nanocrystals in the iridophore cells are very close to each other — hence, the cells specifically reflect short wavelengths, such as blue."

This changes, however, when the chameleon becomes excited, for the skin becomes excited as well, causing the distance between nearby nanocrystals to increase. As a result of this, the iridophore cells selectively reflect longer wavelengths, such as orange and red.

Chameleons also possess three other cells under their skins; xanthophores which contain yellow pigment, erythrophores which contain red pigment, and melanophores which contain melanin.

These cells release pigment whenever the chameleon needs to produce a new colour. This process is vital for producing colours such as yellow and purple.

Image Credit: Flickr @ P.A. King

Now, let’s move on to cephalopods. Similarly to chameleons, some cephalopods use iridophores to camouflage themselves.

Others however have special cells called chromatophores located under their skin. Every cephalopod has thousan