Coloration is a great defensive adaption for many animals, and it comes in various shades. Some toxic animals, like our poison dart frog friends, have bright colors. You may think that these colors would make them easier to spot by predators, and you would be correct. However, that doesn’t necessarily make them easier to eat. The bright colors are actually a warning to potential snackers that the meal in question comes with a punch and that, perhaps, they’d prefer something else a little safer.
Some animal species have evolved, not to have their own toxins, but to copy the coloration of those that do. This is called animal mimicry. There are species of robber flies that look just like bees except that they do not have the defensive weapon of a stinger. Unless you’re looking at them closely though, you wouldn’t know that for sure, and perhaps you’d think it better to leave them alone. There’s an interesting rainforest cockroach species, Luchihormetica luckae, which literally glows in the dark. Again, that makes it easier to see, but in fact it’s mimicking the glowing properties of a toxic click beetle. That tends to warn predators off.
Animals can mimic non-toxic animals too, that may just be dangerous enough for most predators to stay away from. Various moths, for example, can look like owls. Maybe it’s just supposed to look like a larger animal, but it looks like an owl to me, anyway.
There’s another type of mimicry where an animal doesn’t evolve to look like another animal but does so to look like their surroundings. Consider it some top quality camouflage. Still, some camouflage can be just colors and patterns while other can include body structure. Insects in particular are excellent at this.
There are various species of stick bugs that, surprisingly, look like sticks. I actually found one lovely specimen walking around the outside of my house. There are many kinds of leaf bugs as well. If you spend most of your time on plants, looking like one really comes in handy.
Colors and patterns are by far the most common type of camouflage and can be found in just about every nook of the animal kingdom, from insects to fish and birds and mammals. This link here features some excellent examples. The purpose of camouflage, of course, is not to be seen. That can be on either front, offensively or defensively. Predators need to hide in order to sneak up on prey, and prey don’t want to be found for obvious reasons.
Being able to blend in with your background has obvious benefits. You may have noticed that sometimes baby animals look a bit different from their parents in that perhaps they have different coat patterns or colors. This is to help them blend in with their surroundings since they have fewer defenses than the adults. Males and females of the same species can have differences too. In many cases it’s the females that get to decide with whom they’d like to mate, and in many cases it’s the brighter, more colorful males that get the most attention. These bright rich colors show a strong, healthy immune system as they require more energy than duller coloration. The females, however, are often colors that are more likely to blend in with their surroundings. Not only do they not have to expend the higher biological price of bright colors to attract mates, they are also the ones more likely to care for offspring. If they blend more, their nests and babies are less likely to be found as well.
Finally, you can find some colors and patterns that might make you scratch your head in wonder. Look at zebras, for instance. I was in Africa and I honestly don’t recall seeing a black and white landscape. Zebras don’t exactly blend in to the ground, so what gives? There’s a hypothesis that the zebra pattern evolved not to blend in with their surroundings but with each other. With various black and white lines it would be more difficult for a predator to pick out a single individual within a herd. Safety in numbers, especially when you all look like one big blur.
The different colorations found in the wild are fascinating. There are so many colors and patterns and shapes, it really is an evolutionary marvel.