By Intern Marissa Ardovino
As the summer comes to an end, I’ll recall one day I spent in Conway Robinson State Forest…
I walked quietly down the blue trail at Conway Robinson State Forest, rounding a bend in the path when suddenly a small branch shot backwards and retracted upon itself into the depths of a thorny blackberry bramble. I stopped and listened to soft rustling in the shadows of the leaves and quickly realized that the thin tree branch was actually a small reptile! The friendly little snake pictured below is none other than a rough green snake (Opheodrys aestivus). Had he not moved at the moment I rounded the trail bend, there is no way I would’ve seen him hidden within the countless shades of green foliage that perfectly matched his shimmering scales.
Camouflage is a form of cryptic coloration that allows animals to blend in with their surroundings, usually in order to avoid predation or to sneak up on prey. Camouflage comes in many different forms including background matching, mimicry, aposematism and disruptive coloration. When combined with behavioral traits, camouflage is essential to the survival of thousands of animals across the globe.
Reptiles are not the only critters to take advantage of this safety measure, however. Walking farther through the forest, I came across a species of Eastern Shieldback Katydid trudging through the leaf litter.
Were you able to see him at first glance? It definitely took my camera a long time to focus on him, but luckily he proved to be a terrific model before continuing with his day.
I think it can be pretty easy to view the forest as being relatively dichromatic. Everywhere you look, green and brown, brown and green. In reality, the forest contains many more colors than what initially meets the eye. Members of the animal kingdom are very familiar with this.
Take the small bump on this twig for example. This is a gray treefrog (Hyla versicolor), commonly known for being a favorite snack of many birds and reptiles in the woods. If you’re like me, you may think that there is no place for a silvery gray amphibian to disguise itself in a brown and green forest, but clearly there is a proper location for them. Hopefully this little tree frog’s hiding place will protect him from all of the larger animals who would quickly make a meal out of his less-camouflaged neighbors.
Now imagine if all of these animals swapped locations. They would likely stand out like sore thumbs and risk predation from other forest-dwellers. Organisms are adapted to match patterns and textures of their exact niche in an ecosystem. If a certain species does not use cryptic coloration, or a genetic abnormality represses camouflage in an organism, it is much less likely that they will reach reproductive maturity and pass those traits on to the next generation. Through this process camouflage slowly evolves, becoming more and more advanced. Next time you’re out in the woods, be sure to keep an eye out for the near invisible creatures that could be right beneath your feet!
About the author…
I am a rising junior majoring in Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech. This summer, I have an internship through the Manassas branch of Virginia’s LEAF program. LEAF (Link to Education About Forests) is a partnership between Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Department of Forestry and the National Park Service that focuses on teaching the public about natural, cultural and historical resources through outreach initiatives. I work primarily at the Manassas National Battlefield Park and Conway Robinson State Forest where I am working with local organizations to develop lessons about forestry and land management. I keep a weekly blog about the rest of my internship adventures here: https://manaleaf.weebly.com/branching-out