MEANS A LOT IN WILDLIFE WATCHING
by Whit Gibbons
February 15, 2004
a key part of our lives, as anyone knows from the displays of pinks and
reds on Valentine's Day. Color is also a defining part of the lives of
many plants and animals, and frequently tells an environmental story.
Camouflage is a common characteristic of animals whose lifestyles require
that they not be easily seen. The spotted coats of adult leopards and
baby deer help them hide from the eyes of other animals, from prey in
the case of leopards, and predators in the case of fawns. Although their
reasons for having spots are different, both are clearly adapted for blending
into particular habitats. Numerous examples exist for which the environment
dictates the color pattern, whether for protection of a prey species or
for stealth in a predator.
Among birds, most of which can see color, color is a common feature for
purposes of breeding. Male goldfinches turn bright yellow and male indigo
buntings turn bright blue in the spring during the mating season. Redwing
blackbird males display bright red and yellow epaulets on their wings.
The females of the latter two species are an unimaginative brown, and
the female goldfinch is a much paler yellow than the male.
Many fish are also distinctive in their color differences between the
sexes. The brilliantly colored darters of the southeastern streams are
dramatic in their contrast between males and females. In the male Christmas
darter of Georgia and South Carolina, bright red and green bars are present
during the breeding season. Males of the redband darter of Tennessee sport
bright blue and red orange on their fins. Female darters are generally
drabber in appearance.
Interestingly, the color of most mammals is restricted to whites, browns,
grays, and black, suggesting that color blindness is a common trait within
the group. Some or all of the higher primates, which would include humans
and baboons, can see colors. The brightly colored rump region of male
baboons is the most obvious display of color among the mammals, except
for hair color among some of today's teenagers.
Plants also use color to great advantage, the various forms of color advertising
being the most apparent. Brightly colored flowers attract insects that
are essential for pollination in some species. And few plants can be accused
of false advertising as the insect lured to a flower is usually treated
to nectar. Bright red or yellow berries that attract birds such as cedar
waxwings offer a meal for the bird and assure that the enclosed seed will
later be deposited in another area.
The power of camouflage among our native wildlife is readily seen in a
gray treefrog sitting on an oak tree or other drab background. But a biological
phenomenon known as flash coloration adds an intriguing feature of defense
among some frogs and other animals. When a gray treefrog is pursued by
a bird that intends to make a meal of it, the frog jumps, displaying bright
yellow underparts. Upon landing on a tree and tucking in its legs, the
frog blends into the background. The bird, meanwhile, is in search of
something yellow that cannot be found.
One color phenomenon, albinism, is not a product of the natural environment
of plants and animals. Albinism is the expression of a genetic condition
that can be inherited, although neither parent need be an albino itself.
An albino is incapable of producing the pigments that normally give color
to hair, skin, feathers, and other surface tissues. Because of this abnormal
condition, survival in the wild is a difficult struggle.
Despite the perils that would confront most animals that are unable to
be camouflaged, I know of one situation in which albinism saved the life
of a canebrake rattlesnake. Although normally patterned rattlesnakes are
well camouflaged, and few are seen, a local farmer in southern Georgia
normally killed any rattlesnakes he found around his home. However, when
he saw an albino canebrake rattlesnake in his yard, it was so unusual
that instead of killing it he contacted John Jensen of the Georgia Department
of Natural Resources. John removed the rattlesnake unharmed, and the University
of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory now uses the specimen for
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