Saturday, June 11, 2011

Openly Hidden

"One who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived." - Niccolo Machiavelli
"Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself" - Ludwig Wittgenstein
The forest floor in Nehantic State Forest, Lyme, CT.

In both the natural world and in human behavior, deception is common and takes many forms. In human nature, it is for the most part a destructive behavior. Whether for personal gain, or for avoiding responsibility for our actions, deception is often used by one person against another. Worse yet is self-deception, our frequent and seemingly endless inability to see how our actions or decisions harm ourselves or the ones we love. It is often said that it is easy to see the mistakes of others but very difficult to see the ones we make ourselves. Personal experience makes me a believer of this, it has always been easier to see my kid's mistakes than to see my own! I'm sure they would corroborate that. Luckily I have friends that are able to remind me that I'm an idiot. It seems to me that the wisdom that comes with age is simply the result of managing to survive our own foolish behavior for much longer than we have deserved to survive. However, in the natural world, deception is often necessary for survival. Elaborate behaviors and camouflages have evolved to allow successful hunting, or more to the point of this posting, to successfully avoid being the hunted. Deceptions often follow patterns. Discern the patterns, look for the tiny flaws in the patterns of nature, and you may see what is openly hidden.

Take another look at the photo above. The pattern of the forest floor is an orderly chaos of browns and greens. There are many random shapes formed by scattered debris and surface topography. There are also many shades of brown dominating the pattern. In the lower right hand corner is one slightly darker round shape. It is an American Toad hunkered down and looking rather like a clump of dirt. I nearly missed it as I walked the forest this day, but the slightly darker color and round shape caught my eye just as I was passing it by. Here is a closer shot of the little fellow:

Openly hidden. An American Toad (Bufo americanus) uses colors and shapes, coupled with lack of movement, to deceive the eyes of any predators.

A closer look at the Toad's face reveals a bit of leaf debris protruding from its mouth. This is likely the result of the Toad having just eaten something that failed to remain hidden.
The term camouflage come from the French word camoufler, meaning disguise. Many organism have evolved visual or behavioral deceits to avoid predators. Visual camouflages can sometimes be less than optimally effective. If the toad above hops onto a paved road it will stand out quite distinctly. It will stand out even more so if it gets run over by an automobile, but at that point it will no longer be overly concerned about predators. The Gray Tree Frog below has evolved a camouflage that resembles tree bark. In this particular frog's case, its perch is not the best for blending in. At night, I have found Gray Tree Frogs on pavement a number of times, and they can be surprisingly difficult to spot on that surface in the dark even with a flashlight.

Gray Tree Frog (Hyla versicolor). Photo by Hank Golet.

Many predators that do not necessarily use camouflage to hunt will still utilize it for their own protection against other predators. This is true of many of the smaller owl species. In the photo below, an Eastern Screch Owl's pluamge pattern and plumage features (the "horns" are formed by feathers) and its choice of daytime roost site, allow it to be openly hidden.

Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio) roosting in tree cavity. Photo by Hank Golet.

Interestingly, some individuals of this species sport a reddish plumage. There are some trees that have reddish bark, and this individual (in the photo below) would be better served to be perched in just such a tree, but to my knowledge there seems to be no preference by these birds to do so. The fact that this reddish color is less common than the gray suggests that the red causing genes have been "selected" for survival less often than the gray genes.

Eastern Screech Owl, red morph. This individual is likely the mate of the gray bird shown above as it was photographed roosting in the same cavity about a month later. Though there are red tones in the tree's bark, this bird clearly stands out more than the gray plumaged bird.
The ground nesting Whippoorwill has evolved a plumage that closely resembles the leaf strewn forest floor where it places its nest. It further enhances this camouflage through behavior. It will often sit motionless when a threat approaches, and only fly off at the last possible moment. This bird's plumage is wet and slightly darkened by rainfall.

Whippoorwill (Caprimulgus vociferus). Plumage darkened by rain. Photo by Hank Golet.

Here is the same bird photographed with dry plumage.

The same bird but dry. Photo by Hank Golet.

Even the Whipporwill's eggs have evolved a camouflage. The white and brown pattern, as well as the indistinct nest site, make these future Whippoorwills safer from a predator's detection.

Whippoorwill eggs in the "nest". Photo by Hank Golet.

In addition to the Gray Tree Frog and American Toad shown above, other amphibians have evolved visual patterns to help avoid detection. The Wood Frog in the picture below blends in nicely.

Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica) amid the leaves. Photo by Hank Golet.

It isn't just woodland floors or tree bark that is imitated by organisms. The sands of barrier beaches are where the Piping Plover, an endangered species, has evolved to nest. The plumage color of the bird allows it to nearly disappear into its surroundings. Sadly, this camouflage plumage does not help the species avoid the loss of their nests to humans walking or driving the barrier beaches. Nor does it help them avoid the human's dogs. Piping Plover nests were once given human assistance by having metal cages placed over them to stop predation by Gulls, Night-Herons, or Crows. This unfortunately lead to raccoons and skunks learning that these cages held food, and the use of the cages had to discontinued once these scavengers associated the cages with something to eat.

Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) on nest.

Deception is defined as "To cause to believe what is not true; mislead." Deception in the natural world, when used defensively, helps organisms mislead predators. It is one of the survival strategies evolution has devised.  As humans, we can appreciated the intricate beauty these deceptive patterns create. But to do so, we need to first actually see these little deceivers. So the next time you are out of doors, keep you eyes peeled for those things that are indeed, openly hidden.