Many marine creatures have mastered the art of underwater camouflage. Using color and shape changes, and sometimes adapting to threats with blinding speed, marine species use a variety of tricks to confuse and outsmart likely predators. Some marine animals also use camouflage to lie in wait for prey, which provides the hunters with the element of surprise and conserves valuable energy.
The pancake-flat leopard flounder has mastered the art of color camouflage. When the flounder rests on the ocean floor, the fish adopts the sea bottom's rocky features to conceal itself from predators. While swimming through the depths, the flounder's thin profile makes it appear nearly clear in color when seen through the water. The flounder's shape and camouflage tactics might distract predators looking for more conventionally shaped fish.
A cuttlefish seems to have an uncanny ability to adopt a camouflage mechanism for any scenario. Senior scientist Roger Hanlon, working at Woods Hole, Massachusetts' Marine Biological Laboratory, has introduced many color scheme changes into his lab's cuttlefish tubs. The squid-shaped cuttlefish immediately develop a camouflage color scheme to match, contracting and swelling skin layers at will. The animals also control pigment-rich organs that flatten to allow pattern formation. In tubs full of sand, for example, the cuttlefish turn a light beige. In gravel, cuttlefish alternate light and dark coloring to match the gravel's tones. These lightning-fast camouflage skills help the cuttlefish to deceive predators in many marine environments.
Southern stingrays spend much of their time mostly covered by ocean bottom sand. The stingray's diamond-like shape, along with its light brown top color and lack of an identifiable head, make it difficult for divers and snorkelers to spot. Although a predator might notice the stingray's top-based eyes, it might confuse those eyes with pebbles on the sea floor. While the southern stingray appears to be resting, however, it often uncovers small prey by flapping its fins or directing high-pressure water through its mouth.
The adaptable mimic octopus frequently changes shape to blend into its environment and become less visible to predators. The octopus swims along, arms floating free around its body, to resemble the venomous-finned lionfish. At other times, the octopus alters its arms' colors to look like multiple toxic sea snakes. The mimic octopus can even flatten itself completely, taking on the appearance of a poisonous sole. Mimicking these poisonous marine creatures might provide an added deterrent to predators seeking to make a meal of the octopus.
- Reef Images: Camouflage Introduction
- Discovery: Animal Camouflage Pictures: Leopard Flounder
- The New York Times: Healthscience: Understanding Octopus, Cuttlefish and Other Camouflage Champions
- Times of the Islands: Master of Disguise: Southern Stingrays
- National Geographic: The Ocean: Masters of Undersea Camouflage: Mimic Octopus
Based in North Carolina, Felicia Greene has written professionally since 1986. Greene edited sailing-related newsletters and designed marketing programs for the New Bern, N.C. "Sun Journal" and New Bern Habitat ReStore. She earned a Bachelor of Science in business administration from the University of Baltimore.