The chameleon may be the world’s most recognizable color-changing animal, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only creature of its type on the planet. There are more than 20 birds and mammals that can change color to adapt to their environment, and that doesn’t even take into account the myriad of insects, amphibians, fish and reptiles with their own color-changing abilities. While this process is most commonly used as a defense mechanism, it can be used for hunting, recruiting mates, and even socializing.
Here are 10 of the world’s most unique color-changing animals and creative ways to use this skill for survival.
# 10 Animals That Change Color: Arctic Hare – changes appearance to match the season
Winters are generally long in parts of North America where the arctic hare lives, but the snowfall brings with it a new form of shelter for these predatory creatures. Although polar hares have a brown-gray fur coat in the warm season, they shed this coat in favor of white fur when it gets colder. While scientists are not entirely sure how this change occurs, they believe it has something to do with the amount of light received during the day.
As the days get shorter, the hare’s body triggers a transformation. In fact, polar hares in the farthest northern regions tend to be white all year round. Unfortunately, there are concerns that climate change could disrupt the color cycle of these rabbits and make them a target for predators such as foxes and wolves.
You can read more about the arctic hare – for example, that it can jump like a kangaroo – here.
# 9 Animals That Change Color: The Chameleon Is An Incredibly Sophisticated Approach to Disguise
While it is generally believed that chameleons change their skin color according to their environment, this ability serves a more practical and immediate purpose: to regulate body temperature. Since chameleons are unable to generate body heat, they instead regulate the level of heat they absorb from the sun by changing their coloration. But this talent is also used as a way to communicate with each other.
Coloration can be used to indicate aggression between two territorial males, or it can be a way to demonstrate that a chameleon is amenable to breeding. All of this is regulated by an internal sac, which changes body color through the use of just four different pigments – brown, blue, red and yellow.
There are over 160 different types of chameleons and you can learn all about them here.
# 8 Animals that change color: octopus – the ability to consciously and flawlessly change color
The specialized cells that supply chameleons with their color-changing pigments are called chromatophores – and while octopuses have also used chromatophores to change their body color, they are unique in that each of these cells is associated with a nerve ending. The nervous system deliberately tries to adapt colors, and this additional level of efficiency is likely due to the octopus’s few other defense mechanisms.
Depending on the predator or octopus breed, they may use their chromatophores to blend in with their surroundings, or flashing bright colors to signal to predators that they are poisonous. Many octopuses can even change the texture of their skin to blend in better.
The octopus is very intelligent, despite the fact that its neurology is drastically different from that of humans, and you can read more about this adorable creature here.
# 7 Animals That Change Color: Gray Tree Frog – Combination of Camouflage and Caution
The extensive and sophisticated camouflage systems developed by the chameleon and octopus will not be a necessity for every creature – and this is emphasized by the gray tree frog. The natural patterns of the gray tree frog are designed to mimic the appearance of the lichen that dominates the environment in which they live, and they are only able to switch between shades of gray, green or brown. Interestingly, the underside of the frog tends to be a bright and vibrant orange – perhaps as a warning to predators that the frog may be poisonous.
The gray tree frog is just one of the tree frog species and you can learn about the different species here.
# 6 Animals that change color: ermine – camouflage is both an asset and a responsibility
The ability to change color often evolves as a way to escape predators, but ermine camouflage actually makes it more vulnerable to one of the deadliest predators – humans. Ermine fur changes from brown to white with the seasons in much the same way as the polar hare, but the fact that its winter coat is snow-white and incredibly luxurious has made these animals the prey of furriers and trappers in the past. This is a phenomenon that used to leave ermines on the verge of extinction.
Stoats are now considered the least disturbing species, thanks to their population stabilization over the past few decades, but you can learn a lot more about them here.
# 5 Animals that change color: seahorse – hearts on skin
There are 43 recognized species of seahorse, but they all share the ability to change their color on a whim. While this serves as a defense mechanism, it can also rightly be considered a way of expressing personal identity. The coloration can be actively changed to harmonize with the environment, but the coloration of seahorses can also vary depending on their age, diet, or even mood. The bright color change may look just fine when scuba diving, but other seahorses may recognize this as an offer to mate or a territorial threat.
Male seahorses actually give birth to their young, but this is just one of the many facts you can learn about this adorable fish here.
# 4 Animals That Change Color: Caribbean Reef Squids – Light Show Communication.
The mottled green or brown coloration of Caribbean reef squids would not stand out as unusual on most diving expeditions, but their varied ability to change their pigmentation is actually the key to a complex communication system. In addition to masking from underwater surfaces, it can take on several iridescent shades. Depending on the color and location of these spots, gregarious reef squid can use pigment to send warnings to other squid, announce their readiness to mate, and even identify with others. This, combined with a few cues from body language, reveals a rather complex level of social structure.
Most people know that squid use ink to hide from predators, but you can find out more little-known facts about this sea creature here.
# 3 Animals that change color: stone partridge – changes color depending on the season
The mountain partridge gets its name from its ability to blend in with rocks – or snow or mud, depending on the time of the season – in the arctic conditions they call their home. They molt seasonally in the same way as arctic rabbits, changing color from white to gray and then to brown depending on the season. This need for camouflage probably would not have arisen if these birds spent less time on the ground.
The grouse is capable of flying, but normal flight requires a lot of energy in an environment where food is usually scarce.
The grouse is just one member of the grouse family, which you can find out about here.
# 2 Animals that change color: the crab spider is a tattoo artist by nature
The crab spider gets its name from the way it walks, but a particular family member earned a spot on this list due to its ability to change shades of yellow and white. But unlike other animals on this list, they do this by actually changing the pigments their body produces. This means that this process is much slower than in other animals – from a couple of days to several weeks.
Researchers have not agreed on why the crab spider changes color, but it definitely helps them blend in with the yellow and white flowers of corn chamomile, where they tend to lie in wait for prey.
Some crab spiders merge to resemble bird or ant droppings, and you can find out more here.
# 1 Animals that change color: pig – feels color with its skin
Like many animals on this list, the pig uses special cells called chromatophores to change color, but the science of this strange looking fish shows that the pig can actually sense color through touch. While DNA analysis of other color-changing animals, such as octopuses and cuttlefish, shows that their skin essentially works the same way as human eyes when filtering light, the RNA reading of the experimental pigfish seems to demonstrate that The ability of this fish to see with its eyes and sense color through its skin has been activated by different genes.
The mystery behind the unique flair of pork meat remains a mystery, but the pig is known to use its color-changing properties to attract partners and threaten competitors in addition to the traditional form of disguise.
Next up: silver gorillas vs. grizzly bears: who wins the fight?