Visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park often mention experiences when they have been hiking in the tundra and nearly stepped on a ptarmigan or been enjoying a vista only to be surprised by a formerly still animal when it finally moved. Some animals blend into their environments amazingly well. This camouflage, protective coloration, or cryptic coloration, is used by animals for a variety of purposes.
First, an animal may use cryptic coloration as a method to hide from predators. Wolves (now extirpated from the park), coyotes, and foxes are or were the major ground predators of ptarmigan. Hawks and eagles hunt them from the air. Ptarmigan use their rock-like cryptic coloration in the summer, and their snow-like winter plumage, combined with the ability to remain still for long periods of time, to remain invisible to predators while remaining in plain sight in a habitat with very little cover.
Other animals use cryptic coloration to be more successful as predators. Predators determine, in one way or another, if the amount of food (and thus energy) available from a prey species is worth the effort to capture it. For a coyote, chasing a rabbit for long distances may use more energy than the coyote gains from eating the rabbit if it finally catches it. Miscalculations can make the difference between survival and starvation. For a predator, the ability to sneak close to an unsuspecting prey saves it time and energy while hunting, and gives it a substantial advantage in the fight for survival.
Finally, small predators, such as spiders, may use cryptic coloration for both purposes. They can hide in plain sight from their predators while being almost invisible to their prey.
So the next time you visit Rocky Mountain National Park, or even your back yard, look carefully. Predators and prey are using camouflage to wage their fight for survival!
Last updated: March 31, 2012