Article | Natural Illusions

Natural-born Tricksters

Humans aren’t the only species with an affinity for disguise. Nature is full of crafty scammers conjuring optical illusions they use to their advantage.

Pygmy seahorse

Picture yourself as an energy-sapped wild cat who hasn’t eaten for days. Or an Australian super lyrebird brimming with love (and hormones) you feel called upon to share with all your girlfriends. Or a small, defenceless invertebrate intent on not being someone else’s lunch. How will you achieve your goal? Is trickery on the menu? 

As humans, it’s tempting to think we’re the only species that has a handle on deception to get what we want, but that's far from the case. Insects, birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, and even plants are well versed in the art – and practise – of disguise and illusion. 

Nature’s con artists

Many species owe their survival to trickery. Whether it’s a jumping spider that looks, and moves, like an ant to escape predators; a female orchid praying mantis that any unsuspecting flying insect would mistake for a flower (and who looks like one to lure prey); or a cuttlefish, whose mind-boggling ability to adopt different colours and patterns on its skin simultaneously means it can dupe rivals and score with the available female.

Broadly speaking, we’re talking about camouflage and there are different types. For just as humans can choose between hovering unnoticed as wallflowers and swaggering like the celebrities they’re not, so, too, can other species. Which type a species uses will depend on whether it has fur, skin, or feathers, where and with whom it lives, and what the camouflage is for.

Blending in

The most widely used and understood is background camouflage. From earthy toned red pandas, through lime-green flightless New Zealand parrots (aka kākāpō), to Southeast Asian walking stick and leaf insects that could be mistaken for … walking sticks and leaves! These and many other species have evolved the ability to disguise their identity, location, and even their form by cleverly blending with their surroundings.

Disruptions and distractions 

Others take a slightly different tack. The dark stripe across the eyes of Mexican vine snakes makes it harder for predators to detect them because the disruptive marking breaks up their body’s outline. They’re often mistaken for tree vines. Owl butterflies have large eyespots on their wings to confuse birds into thinking they’re gazing into the soul windows of larger species. The markings also distract attention from softer, more vulnerable, and enticing parts of their bodies.

Owl butterfly

Razzle-dazzle effect

Black and white striped zebras running en masse can dazzle hungry lions. Being unable to distinguish individuals, or estimate their running speed and direction, these carnivorous would-be diners are more likely to let their meal escape. Other species, like sharks, rely on their ‘ombre’ sunkissed look to evade unfortunate endings and successfully land their own prey. 


Ingeniously, parts of their bodies that are closer to sunlight are darker than more further-away parts. For many sharks, this countershading camouflage – achieved without resorting to their favourite stylist! – distorts the fish’s shadow. It also makes it harder for fishers and swimmers to see them from above, because the shark merges with the darker water below. It’s not easy picking it out from below, either, because the shark’s paler underside blends with lighter surface water. Prey are disarmed, and – hey presto – no more! 

Natural concealers

Some species use smell to disguise themselves. The California ground squirrel chews dead rattlesnake skin into a paste that it smears over its tail as an olfactory camouflage to perplex rattler predators. Others, like desert spiders that live in burrows, stick natural materials, such as sand, to their bodies to appear other than themselves. The trick, if it’s successful, fools Spidey’s would-be predators and not-so-willing prey.  

Mimic octopus

Optical illusions

Then there’s the mimics. 

Plants such as woody vines can simulate the shapes of surrounding leaves to blend in and avoid hungry herbivores; tiny Brookesia chameleons hide in plain sight by playing dead and masquerading as fallen leaves. And we shouldn’t forget that Master of Illusions, the mimic octopus, which hangs out in the shallow waters of the Indo-Pacific. 

This savvy cephalopod can rapidly change its colours, patterns, physical form and even its texture to hoodwink would-be munchers. Astonishingly, these transformations make it appear as if it’s the predator of its predators: jellyfish, lionfish, crabs, or sea snakes! Which just goes to show that humans aren’t the only ones for whom the best form of protection may be attack. 

Notice me, notice me!

Less attention-averse species go for an altogether different angle, preferring glaring visibility as their protective or romantic ploy. King snakes, for instance, sport the same red, yellow, and black colouring as poisonous coral snakes. By doing so they hope to scare off predatory birds by signalling their faux deadliness and making themselves less of a target. 

In a similar vein, male sea sapphires contain crystals that allow them to beam appealingly iridescent colours at potential mates. When their light goes out, these miniscule crustaceans-cum-floating glitter balls become momentarily invisible and concealed from predators.   

Our crafty world

We could go on. The point is that nature is full of tricksters using disguises to deceive. Many more ploys are yet to be discovered. Which just goes to show that humans aren’t the only wily species; rather, that the craftiness we associate with our own kind is all around us!

Nature in Disguise

You never know, you might find your new favourite species … though it could just be a trick!