Camouflage in a Grasshopper, according to Wikimedia Commons

An example of a camouflaged animal,
identified by Wikimedia Commons
as a grasshopper in the French Alps.

Animals With Camouflage and Disguise:
Representation in Nature

by Ken Sanes

Contrary to what one might think, simulation isn't confined to human beings, nor is it necessarily something that is consciously created. Plants and animals use  camouflage and other deceptive appearances in great profusion, which are essential tools in the struggle for survival.

In many instances, these deceptive appearances consist only in an animal's ability to walk with stealth or hide or remain completely still, to create the impression it isn't there. As we discover in all those television nature documentaries, predators and prey are constantly slinking around in the underbrush, peering from behind obstructions and standing motionless, as they wait for the right moment to strike or flee from danger.

Also common are disguises that are built into the appearance of plants and animals. These deceptions exist in nature in a remarkable profusion, easily matching anything produced by that other world of illusion, Hollywood. Nature is unambiguously a world of things that appear to be other things or, in some cases, of things that appear to be nothing at all. There are insects that look like sticks and leaves; mammals with white coats that blend in with snow-covered landscapes: fish that seem to be rocks; a sea horse with leafy protuberances that bears a striking resemblance to a clump of weeds; and crabs that cover their shells with seaweed, and all kinds of other animals with camouflage, providing us with the spectacle of animals that masquerade as other animals, as plants and minerals, and as fallen snow. In an act of evolutionary hubris, a fly in the Amazon even has the shape and markings of a miniature alligator, including a false snout and teeth, which is apparently convincing enough to frighten off potential predators, despite the difference in size.

Not infrequently, these deceptions blend together costume and behavior. After all, a caterpillar that looks like a branch must also play the role, by placing itself on the correct stage and enacting its part, if it is to be convincing enough to survive. 

A camouflaged animal: a dead leaf mantis


One of many animals with camouflage: a dead leaf mantis 

One of the more commonly cited animals with
camouflage, a dead leaf mantis (or rather two
of them), apparently being still and looking leafy.

Animal Camouflage and Disguise
as Representation

These deceptions provide living things with at least three kinds of advantage in the struggle to survive: they are used as bait (for example, to lure in prey or pollinators); they make plants and animals appear threatening or noxious (or nonthreatening) and, perhaps, most frequently, as noted, they provide plants and animals with camouflage that can be used to hide from predators, and they give animals the ability to take potential prey by surprise. Mostly, they come down to a few basic "strategies": semi-invisibility; hiding or cover-up; distraction; disguise (including camouflage), and behavioral pretenses, which either hide something or announce the presence of something that isn't what it appears to be.

Each of these cons also involves a three-way relationship. First, there is the deceiver. Second, there has to be a dupe or victim that is susceptible to being taken in. Otherwise, the charade collapses and the imitation ceases to be of value. Third, although it isn't usually present, there is typically a model -- one or more kinds of plants or animals (or other things) that are being impersonated.

In effect, these deceptions are a primitive version of what are often referred to in philosophy and literary criticism as representations and narratives. More specifically, they are forms of theater that use costumes, props and acting to tell a story -- "I'm just a leaf hanging from a branch," or "I'm a dangerous alligator" -- directed at a specific audience. They are based on the ability not merely to represent something that isn't there, but to create the illusion that the representation is what it represents.*

Perhaps what is most remarkable about all of these plants and animals with camouflage and disguise is that it is all said to be a result of the workings of chance. According to evolutionary theory, effective disguises are the product of random mutations, which are passed on because the living things that possess them have a better chance of surviving and reproducing. When an insect that looks like a leaf, sits on a branch and is completely still, it presumably has no idea it is pretending to be part of the tree. It is merely doing what it is programmed to do, while other insects that did other, less effective, things got eaten and failed to reproduce or did so less.

Assuming that science's version of events is correct, what we see is a system in which the blind workings of nature have ended up grinding out not only representation, but misrepresentation, offering rewards to the most effective deceivers. The ability to manipulate appearances has turned out to be a form of power in nature, and the inability to see through appearances has turned out to be a form of powerlessness. 

Other Uses of Representation by Animals

But it isn't only the ability to use lifelike representations or simulations to camouflage and deceive that we see in nature. We also discover that nature uses lifelike representations to create fictions that can be used for entertainment, learning, and communication. In the play of young mammals, for example, the animals play act at stalking, chasing, and fighting. They pre-enact adult roles through behavioral simulations. Everyone involved (at least other animals of the same type) know it is play. They know it is a form of misrepresentation, not intended to be taken for what it imitates.

Once again, all of these possibilities are programmed into the animals, although the actual behaviors involve complex perceptions and reactions, in which the animal's behavior is an act of coordination between responses to urges and to perceptions. Presumably, these forms of play exist because they provide learning experiences for the animals. (They are also entertaining to the animals and, presumably, that encourages them to play and has survival value, and isn't merely a side effect.)

Animals similarly communicate through "iconic" behavior - they do something that looks or seems like something else, in order to communicate. For example, when some animals don't want you to do something, they may lightly bite down on your hand without breaking the skin. In effect, they are representing a bite to you to communicate an idea -- "There's a bite in your future if you don't stop that."

Simulations Created by People

All of this existed by the time the ancestors of modern human beings came on the scene. It seems reasonable to suggest that our human ancestors inherited the ability to walk with stealth, to be completely still and hide, to act threatening and communicate through iconic behavior, and to play. These things were part of their animal -- and genetic -- heritage.

But, as culture evolved, we can safely surmise that humanity began to create a new set of physical simulations and forms of acting, with conscious intention, to trick both animals and other people. Hunters and soldiers created sophisticated forms of camouflage, so they would blend in with their surroundings, maybe in some instances as a result of observing camouflaged animals. Farmers put up scarecrows which, while not very convincing to human eyes, were effective enough to fool less discerning animal audiences, not unlike the fly pretending to be an alligator. Shamans and magicians developed sleight of hand tricks to simulate magical powers, as a way of advancing their positions in their own societies, thus creating early forms of fakery modeled after fictions of the mind, rather than after actual objects or events in the world.

Most of the evidence for these creations has been lost with the passage of time, but enough survives to give us glimpses into the world of early simulations. There are duck decoys made of reeds, for example, found in Lovelock Cave, Nevada, that were assembled sometime after 1500 B.C. The creators had already mastered many of the elements of verisimilitude, imitating the shape, size and posture of the animal they were trying to portray. One decoy has feathers tucked under the reeds, to enhance the effect.

At some point in the evolution of culture, these simulations were also created for purposes other than deception. Cosmetics were used not only to create a deceptive appearance, but to provide aesthetic pleasure. And humanity began to create forms of representational art and stories, perhaps originally tied to rituals, involving animal paintings, carved statues, and costumes. With the evolution of drama, humanity began to simulate not merely discrete things or actions, but situations, people and chains of events, creating the imitation "realities" of the theater, a trend that found its first flowering, so far as we know, in ancient Greece. In effect, humanity evolved its own, symbolically rich, forms of play, creating representations based on both the world and imagination, and creating misrepresentations that appeared to be what they imitated, but only to heighten the aesthetic experience.

Looking back across history, we can trace humanity's growing ability to simulate appearances, in the discovery of perspective, for example, that allowed painters and drawers to create the illusion of three-dimensional space; or the creations of wigs and make-up. We can also surmise that the creation of simulations and of the invented scenes and situations found in fiction is inborn. We do it spontaneously, in day and night dreams, and in the play of conversation and interaction, as well as in the arts.

But, until relatively recently, our ability to create these simulations was limited by shortcomings in both technique and technology, despite the magnificent creations of art and culture. Somewhere along the way, however, we began to emerge from this period of more limited simulations. Perhaps, we should mark the beginnings of this phase somewhere around the turn of the twentieth century when clever inventors and entrepreneurs began to discover that it was possible to use electronic images not only to simulate the physical environment, creating a dynamic, two-dimensional, rendering of the three-dimensional space in movies, but also to tell stories.

Whenever it happened, today, we have entered a period in history that can truly be referred to as an age of simulation, in which advanced forms of fakery and illusion are now dominant elements of culture and society.

Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that we now have an economy in which millions of people owe their livelihood to designing, manufacturing and selling fakes, imitations, counterfeits, replicas, faux products and cons. Much of our culture is made up of imitations and illusions, used for fantasy and entertainment, and our politics consist mostly of candidates who use the techniques of theater and movies - of acting, staging, scripting, and image manipulation - to produce false identities for public consumption. We live in a world of hairpieces that look like hair; lip-syncers who pretend they are vocalists; home security devices that bark like overexcited watchdogs; Elvis impersonators; fake ATM machines created by con artists; and television infomercials, selling everything from psychic readings to electric juicers, that pretend they are television talk shows. We consume food re-created with imitation flavors, sugars and fats; we live in homes, stocked with art replicas, fake fireplaces and faux marble bathroom fixtures; and we ourselves are gradually being turned into imitations of a more idealized version of ourselves, as we are reduced, expanded, reshaped and reconditioned with cosmetic surgery.

This new age of simulations has a number of essential characteristics. Among them, the number of simulations is increasing rapidly, giving us surroundings made up of manipulated appearances; the kinds of simulation are increasing, and the simulations are becoming so lifelike that it is getting more difficult to distinguish them from what they imitate, inducing a state of mind that can be referred to as simulation confusion, in which fakes are confused for something authentic. In addition, we are witnessing the emergence of a global culture based on simulation. As rapid forms of transportation and mass communications have carried American culture and marketing into the rest of the world, they have carried this world of illusion-based marketing with it. Now as many nations make their great ascent, they are creating their own dynamic cultures of simulation.

Not surprisingly, one of the most important ways we use these fictions is to playfully act out what matters to us. We create lifelike fictions about sex, love, death, self-esteem, reconciliation, moral principles, overcoming persecution, and so on, because these are on our minds. Its as if we are a more evolved version of those young mammals, play-acting to learn how to be adults. But we play-act in an effort to satisfy our desires and to learn how to cope with life and its traumas; we symbolically master life by living it through misrepresentations -- fictions. These fictions let us experience the basic emotions of life, by virtue of the fact that we respond emotionally to lifelike misrepresentations as if they are something authentic. Faced with a play about someone dying, we respond emotionally, to some degree, as if someone is dying, and can thus symbolically live through the trauma of death, and thus partially master the feelings involved.

Presumably, if we were intelligent dogs, we would use the power of representation to create a slightly different set of misrepresentations -- airbrushed publicity photographs of celebrity Collies; scratch and sniff television; and paintings idealizing the leader of the pack.

To conclude -- with evolution and history, a movement, of sorts, has taken place from camouflaged animals and other natural simulations to limited, humanly-made simulations, to advanced high-technology simulations. Today, we use technology and our ingenuity:

-- to create representations that are hard to distinguish from physical and sensory objects we know from the world;
-- to create representations that imperfectly represent known physical and sensory objects (either deliberately or because we can't get a perfect representation);
-- to create representations that represent nothing that exists outside of the imagination, so far as we know;
-- and to create nonrepresentational forms of art.

Since the first three of these simulate the appearance of something they aren't, these are, in a sense, misrepresentations. Even the last category on the list -- nonrepresentational art -- may still simulate the appearance of certain qualities such as three-dimensional space or motion.

In summary, we create "misrepresentational" objects, for deception, art, entertainment, exploration, learning, communication, and other purposes. Representation has freed us from the tyranny of literalness. We also create nonrepresentational art to free ourselves from the tyranny of representation.

- - - - - -

If you enjoyed this page on animals with camouflage,
and simulation, you may also be interested in:



*Facial expressions and body language that misrepresent an animal's psychological state or intentions or are intended to symbolically convey a message, deserve to be counted as a kind of representation or misrepresentation, or behavioral simulation, as well. The same is true for people, who inherited this ability and expanded on it.

* A footnote needs to be added for Bateson, G. (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine.