Why Do Animals Have Camouflage?

Animals developed camouflage through their struggles to adapt to their unique niches and environments

In the jungles of the Pantanal lives a swift and powerful predator. The master of its domain, feared and respected by all that roam in its habitat.


In the jungles of the Pantanal lives a swift and powerful cat known as the jaguar. It hunts after prey including deer and capibara, it has even been known to pull caiman from the water just to devour them, breaking their necks with its powerful jaws. Jaguars are apex, at the top of the food chain, predators in a large portion of the Americas. While they are commonly considered to be found only in dense Latin American rainforests they are also quite at home in various grasslands and the North American desert as well. These big cats are able to live in these envrionments for a number of reasons. They are the third largest of all the known cat species in the world and have a bite that is stronger than almost any other terrestrial mammal. Jaguars are very adept swimmers and can travel across fast moving bodies of water. But there is one other important attibute of jaguars that allows them to dominate their territories. Jaguars can hide in plain sight from their prey.

jaguar leavesThe Jaguar's ability to be a top predator is enhanced by its ability to stay concealed while stalking its prey. What aids the big cat in this endeavor? Aside from a lifetime of aquired knowledge and a body designed to be stealthy, Jaguars have an edge because of the spots, often called rosettes, on their coat. These unique spots provide camouflage for the jaguars and this helps them to blend in better with their environment. This gives these animals an edge that simply improves their effectiveness as top predators. Their unique coloration and spots help to make them harder to be seen by prey and this allows them to get closer before being spotted, just within striking range. By having camouflage the jaguar has a distinct advantage over its prey and competitors. It does not have to rely as heavily on its speed, strength, and stalking in order to secur a meal but that doesn't give it a free pass to goof around either. The camouflage is only so helpful and these cats still need to keep their wits about them if they hope to catch their dinner.

jaguar figureIn this figure on the left you can see the time needed before a deer was able to recognize an animal stand in and display a threat response. Four different life size models of animals were created of a deer, a tiger, a puma/mountain lion, and a leopard to represent a jaguar. Each model was presented to a deer in open terrain where it wouldn't be hidden by foliage or a natural feature. The top graph shows the seconds needed before a deer stomps its hoof when it sees a representation of an animal; whlle, the second graph shows the amount of time needed until the deer began to perform an alarm walk away from the model. The Y Axis of the graphs show what percentage of the deer did not display these behaviors until at a moment in time. As can be seen by the data, deer were unable to respond more quickly to the leopard than they were to a deer. The tiger had the second longest time until being recognized and the puma was recognized the fastest, however the differences between these two models were not statistically strong enough to make a true distinction. What that means is that despite tigers not being an animal found in the natural habitat of California deer, it was recognized as a threat as often as cougars, an animal that they normally encounter. The important thing to note here though is that despite the fact that a leopard isn't much more common than a tiger in the wide fields of California, this model was recognized as a threat much more slowly. What the research team suggests makes up for the difference in speed of recogniton is the camouflage pattern of the leopard as opposed to the tiger. Tigers are native to areas that have much thicker and longer grass species when compared to those of North America. The jaguar stand in on the other hand was able to hide much more effectively in what was essentially plain sight because, as the research team argues, the deer could not easily recognize the shape of the leopard as a predator. (Images of both a tiger and jaguar in their environment are below). If you'd like to learn more please visit, JSTOR.



jaguar jungle