Adapt or die…

Kruger National Park | December 2019

The idea of coming on safari has a massive appeal to so many people for many various reasons. Be it love and romance at the thought of a glass of bubbly during a one-of-a-kind and mind-blowing sunset or the adrenaline of a predator stalking and chasing down its prey… One thing is for sure and that this is all happening in a very naturally hostile environment if you call the bush your home. Using the term ‘hostile’ I’m referring to the relationship between predator and prey and this raises two questions in my mind…

  1.  How have predators evolved and adapted to give them the best chance of a successful hunt by staying undetected?
  2. How have the prey species adapted and evolved to overcome these predatory adaptations to remain undetected or out of the clutches of sure death once the predator has been noticed?

In this article I would like to touch on a few (there are many more) of these adaptations and techniques used that have interested me over the years.

Camouflage – When reading this you might be thinking “well that’s obvious”, but is it really that simple? A definition of camouflage is when the animal in question is hiding itself within its immediate environment and or background. A fantastic example of this would be lionesses hunting in the long brown grass. Lions (Panthera leo) are considered to have evolved in Africa more than 800 000 years ago. This entails many moments of trial and error and natural selection which has now allowed the modern-day lion in Africa to have the tan colouration best suited for their current natural habitat. It’s worth noting that the lionesses have no standout features that could blow their cover from the front while on the hunt, but from the rear the black hair on the back of their ears is thought to assist in the different strategies used by lionesses in the same pride when hunting certain species of prey.

Disruptive markings – As guides we refer to disruptive markings when the animal has spots, stripes or markings that break up the obvious outline or silhouette of the individual. Leopards are the masters in this department. With their spots and iconic rosette pattern along the main part of the body they often fool even the sharpest of eyes in the animal kingdom as they lie motionless up in the canopy of a tree or move silently through the grass along drainage lines and gullies. Once the leopard does lie motionless in a suitable spot, the mottled effect of its coat distorts the silhouette and shape of its body and is almost impossible to see. The stripes of zebras do not blend into their environment, but rather create confusion in the selection process of a predator that could be hunting them. The clear outline of each individual zebra is broken by these stripes as they stand among each other and they all start blending and flowing into one. This effect makes it incredibly difficult for the predator to see which zebra head belongs to which zebra tail. The young zebra foals become very difficult to see when standing pressed up along the side of the adult female as even their manes have stripes through them. These stripes may also be of great use and confusion to a predator once a chase ensues. The crisscross running lines of the zebra make it difficult for the predator to stay locked on its initial target and may result in a split second of doubt in the predator’s attack in which the zebra can get away safely or with minimum injury.

Disguise and mimicry – In these forms of survival, centre stage has to be taken by the phenomenally large and diverse insect world. Some of the masters of disguise are the stick insects and leaf katydids that disguise themselves as… well, you guessed it… sticks and leaves. This form of survival works to its best potential when the insect in question moves extremely slowly or remains completely motionless as a predator moves on by without any idea of the prey’s presence.

A rather different and risky approach is that of mimicry. Rather than trying to blend in or stay out of sight, this form of survival is effective when sending out a clear message of danger by using bright colours or posing as something dangerous, toxic or foul tasting. The monarch butterfly lays its eggs on toxic plants. The caterpillars then feed on these plants and carry the toxins with them to the adult form. Bright red, white, orange and black are clear indication to any predator to stay away. In the pictures below we can see the incredible resemblance between the African monarch and the female mimicking diadem butterfly. Can you spot who is who?

There are endless impersonators and disguises used by variety of insects, so next time you walk around in your own garden, have a closer look between the leaves and branches… you never know what you might find.

Startle and deflection displays – This form of survival adaptation comes to mind when certain animals don’t possess very strong defences. What is trying to be achieved here is again creating a moment of doubt in the predator’s approach and attack which allows the prey to get away or even scare the predator enough into looking for a more suitable and less scary food source. The marbled emperor moth uses this very interesting technique in the art of not becoming a meal to a hungry predator. The two oversized circles on the wings are mimicking the eyes of a larger animal, very similar to that of an owl. Flashing these ’eyes’ at the potential predator could be good enough to create confusion or enough intimidation for the moth to get away or scare the predator away for good.


Photos by Brian Rode