Color in the Animal World

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Color is an integral part of this world, not just for human beings, but for many creatures in the animal kingdom. Numerous insects, birds, and aquatic animals such as fish and reptiles have highly developed systems that recognize and use color differentiations in a variety of situations and adaptations. The fact that many larger mammals cannot distinguish colors would indicate that they have other heightened senses or abilities to compensate for this disadvantage. A bull really can't see red or any other color, but he has his strength to rely on in most situations. Dogs are color blind, and cats are trichromatic, yet both possess an especially keen sense of smell. Humans, on the other hand, are highly aware of and sensitive to the changing colors in the world around them.

Animals may use their unique coloring for protection, for aggression, for attracting a mate or for finding a meal. In some cases, extra melanin pigments serve as environmental protection from the harmful rays of the sun. On the other hand, there are also those animals that live in such dark environments that color is meaningless, and they manage to survive completely without it.

Perhaps the most common use of color is for camouflage, especially among smaller, more defenseless forms of animal life. A sea creature's transparent blue coloring can make it almost invisible in the ocean depths. A sandy-brown snake or crab may disappear against the similarly-toned shore or desert sands. More specific coloring adaptations involve body-coloring that looks like something it is not-such as a twig, stone or bark. Since most predators normally show little interest in consuming these things, a creature that can mimic them and stay very still has a better chance of surviving undetected.

Predators also use camouflage, blending into their environment so that they can more easily surprise their unsuspecting prey. The leopard is difficult to see when it lies quietly among the grasses. An owl perched in a tree can look more like a branch than a hunter getting ready to swoop down on a meal. The flower mantis looks more like a flower than a hungry insect.

In the human world, the colors red, yellow, black and white are often signals of impending danger. The same is true in the animal world. Some creatures actually use their colors to warn potential predators away, whether or not they can actually defend themselves. These animals are often foul-smelling, poisonous or bad-tasting, and they want everyone to know and leave them alone. The Monarch butterfly is poisonous and advertises the fact with its bright colors. The Viceroy butterfly is not poisonous, but pretends to be by mimicking the Monarch in its coloring.

Animals use colors to attract sexual partners. Many male birds are much more brightly colored than the females. While this fact also makes them more likely targets for predators, it also assists them in attracting a mate and reproducing. The duller colors of the female help protect her during the times in which she must sit on her eggs and care for her young. Some colors are only temporary. For example, the male puffin displays bright rings on his beak only during mating season. They fade away the rest of the year.

In the wonderful workings of nature, certain butterflies are attracted to the colorful, showy blooms of specific flowering plants that most need them for pollination. They ignore greener ones until they are ready to lay their eggs. How do they know how much their baby caterpillars will enjoy eating those green leaves? While not all members of the animal kingdom enjoy or rely on color for survival, for the many who do, their adaptation is truly amazing.

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