The animal kingdom is bursting with creatures that adopt deadly and deceptive strategies of disguise. Birds pretend to be trees, big cats use mottled coats to melt into their surrounds, and some caterpillars even smell like sticks to throw off any would-be predators. These are examples of crypsis – the ability of creatures to avoid detection by either predator or prey. Here are eight of our favourite deception experts. Merry Crypsis, everyone!


Nothing to see here … just a tree stump (is exactly what the potoo wants you to think).

Can you spot the potoo? Image © The Lilac Breasted Roller
A sky-gazing potoo does it's best to blend in. Image © Bernard Dupont

These big-eyed birds are found in tropical Central and South America where they spend their days resting beneath the rainforest canopy pretending to be trees. Potoos are nocturnal, so to avoid detection during daylight hours, the cartoonish birds perch, motionless on dead or dying trees where their colour pattern helps them appear like extensions of branches.

But these birds are more than just proficient tree-mimics. Their big yellow eyes, which remain closed when they are in stealth mode, give the animals a perpetually surprised look and have rocketed the curious creatures to internet fame (recognise this meme?). Those oversized eyeballs, while chuckle-worthy, are perfect for spotting tasty insects, which make up the bulk of the birds' diet.

Gaboon Viper

A head-on view of a camouflaged Gaboon viper. Image © Jannes Pockele

Perfectly adapted to life on the forest floor, the Gaboon viper is a masterful ambush predator. When coiled in a pile of fallen leaves, the hefty viper’s broad head and thick body melt into the mottled colours of the forest floor making the snakes nearly undetectable.

Considered to be the world’s heaviest viper, these predators also have the longest fangs (5 centimetres) and the highest venom yield of any snake. Found in rainforests throughout much of the African continent, the Gaboon viper is easily identifiable from its thick body, large triangular head and characteristic “horns” situated between its nostrils. Beige, yellow and tan markings help the snake blend into the forest floor where it lies in wait for unsuspecting prey. Gaboon vipers have a potent cytotoxic venom which does make them dangerous, however, their unaggressive nature and preferred habitat mean that these snakes are not often responsible for biting people.

Snake mimic caterpillar

When it comes to predator defences, caterpillars and pupae are well-equipped: camouflage, mimicry, poison, foul odours, unpalatable hair, high-pitched whistling … there have even been reports of puss caterpillars spitting an acid-like substance. But the award for best invertebrate mimicry definitely goes to Hemeroplanes triptolemus for its masterful impersonation of a venomous snake.

Native to the rainforests of the Amazon, the snake mimic caterpillar turns into a rather unimpressive moth in the family Sphingidae, but in its larval stage it incorporates an astonishing survival tactic. The caterpillar begins its defensive manoeuvre by throwing itself backwards and twisting its body to expose hidden shades of yellow, white and black on its underbelly. Air is then sucked in through tiny holes in the caterpillar's sides (known as spiracles) and pumped to the front of its body.

Once the segments are inflated, the caterpillar takes on the form of a venomous snake complete with diamond-shaped "face" and large eyes.

Snow Leopard

Spot The Snow Leopard _2015_05_06
Can you see it? Click the photo for the answer. Image: Inger Vandyke

All big cats are adept at slinking through their habitats undetected, but snow leopards take their camouflage skills to the next level. Known as “ghosts of the mountains”, these elusive felines roam the world’s highest mountains ranges where food is scarce and stealthiness is essential for survival. Their smokey-grey coats tinged with yellow fur and distinctly marked with dark rosettes and spots help them melt into the barren, alpine habitat they call home.

In addition to their floofy deception coats, snow leopards have also evolved other traits that help them withstand the challenges of their icy territories. The cats have developed wide nasal passages and large chest cavities that increase the volume of air they can take in when they breathe – a handy adaptation when you live in the oxygen-depleted extremes of the lofty Himalayas. They are also able to absorb more oxygen than your typical cat thanks to an abundance of specialised red-blood cells. Giant paws work like snow shoes spreading their weight to allow them to walk on top of snow without sinking in.

Although the big cats share their habitat with only a small number of human inhabitants, it’s enough to pose a threat. Livestock herding and climate change has reduced their habitat and poachers continue to hunt the leopards for their magnificent fur. Some estimates suggest that there are between 4,500 and 10,000 of these endangered cats left in the world.

Pygmy sea horse

Pygmy seahorses are one of the ocean's most impressive camouflagers. Smaller than a paperclip, the tiny creatures are so skilled at hiding themselves that scientists only discovered the species in 1969 by accident when examining some coral that had been brought into a lab.

These elusive fish are too minuscule and fragile to fend off predators and instead turn to camouflage to survive. They spend their entire adult lives living on a type of coral called a sea fan. Calcium-rich bumps, known as tubercles, cover the seahorses' bodies and help them blend in with the sea fans' polyps.

Geometer moth caterpillar

The green looper is a relative of Biston robustum. Image © gbohne

Camouflage and mimicry are the most common forms of crypsis, but many creatures rely on chemical deception to fool a predator or prey into sniffing up the wrong tree. Larvae of Biston robustum, a species of moth native to parts of Asia, have developed a nifty trick to hide from predator ants in plain sight.

In a literal interpretation of “you are what you eat” the caterpillars are able to absorb elements of whatever plant they are feasting on right into their exoskeletons meaning that not only do they look like sticks, but they smell like them too.

Ants have been recorded walking right over the moth larvae unable to detect their presence!

Dresser crab

Decorator crab (Oregonia gracilis) adorned with yellow sponges. Image © Dan Hershman

If there’s one animal that knows how to accessorise, it’s the dresser crab. These sideways scuttlers decorate their shells with whatever material they can salvage on the ocean floor. After chewing on their chosen piece of detritus they’ll fix it to velcro-like protrusions on their shell and legs. The result is a kind of custom-made ghillie suit that helps them blend into their surroundings. If a predator looms, the dresser crab will freeze, letting its camouflage outfit mask its location.

Orchid mantis

Orchid mantises showing off (complete with 80s synth soundtrack).

Native to the rainforests of Southeast Asia, the orchid mantis is a predator dressed to kill. These flower-like insects exhibit a behaviour called aggressive mimicry. Unlike many prey species that use mimicry to hide, the orchid mantis uses it to stand out. Orchids use vivid colours to attract pollinators like bees and flies, so the sneaky mantises have evolved to do the same, only the insects are doing it to lure in a meal.

When an unsuspecting pollinator on the lookout for a meal spots the vibrant mantis, they swoop in expecting a sweet treat and instead wind up becoming lunch. While the orchid mantis’s ability to melt into its surroundings may seem remarkable to us, the insects did not evolve to fool human brains. The cryptic mimicry that tricks our eyes into thinking the mantis is part of an orchid plant is actually an entirely different form of camouflage than that which is being employed by the predators to hunt their insect prey.

Pollinators like bees and flies do not view the world in the same way that we do. While the human eye can discern finer details and outlines, making it tricky for us to pick out a camouflaged mantis resting on an orchid plant, insects see the bigger picture. For pollinators, an orchid mantis appears even bigger and brighter than a regular flower making it attractive even when not concealed amongst other orchids.

So why the cryptic camouflage then? Well, it’s possible that the mantis’s deadly disguise also serves an anti-predator function helping hide the insects from birds and other animals looking for a mantis snack.

Top header image: Klaus Stiefel/Flickr