Winter colours

Sabi Sand | August 2017

A question I am often asked is “why is the animal that colour?” There are so many great examples out there, but the following are just a few that stand out:

The most commonly asked question is about the zebra regarding its strange arrangement of colours and patterns. There have been many theories as to why the zebra has its elaborately arranged stripes. One of these theories is that the shape of the animal is broken up when it’s not a solid colour – for example the stripes of a tiger or the spots of a leopard or cheetah. We refer to this as “disruptive colouration”. These shapes fool your eyes into thinking that the animal is a part of the environment, making them easily overlooked. So when you’re looking for animals and they are not moving, it would be much more difficult to spot them, as our eyes are designed to identify moving objects rather than stationary, cryptic-coloured objects. For example, if a zebra is walking along the base of a hill it would be much easier to spot if it were moving rather than if it were standing still. This technique is used by many animals, including predators, because not only do the prey species need to blend into their surroundings to avoid predation, but the predators need to blend into their environments as well in order to get close enough to subdue their targets.

Along with this disruptive colouration, which greatly benefits a lot of animals, I’ve noticed that during the winter the predators seem to blend in so much better than they do during the summer. During the summer the grass is green but it is also tall and therefore it gives the predators more cover while trying to manoeuvre closer to their prey. During the winter they have to deal with situations where there is not enough vegetation that they could use as cover. Therefore, if you were a green predator, you might not do too well during the winter seasons. Having said that, the larger predators that occur within the Sabi Sand region (lion, leopard, cheetah, wild dog and even serval, to name just a few), would blend perfectly into their surroundings during the winter seasons, as they are either mottled, tawny, spotty and /or neutral-
coloured animals. This is the reason for their high hunting success rates during the winter season and the reasons why they often breed during these times.

Another factor that could contribute to predators’ higher hunting success rates during the winter season would include the fact that herbivores tend to take strain during the dry winter season as the vegetation contains lower levels of nutrients. This would result in herbivores having to spend more time moving from place to place to find enough food to sustain their bodies. They would therefore have less time to spend looking out for any potential danger and they could no longer choose the safer, open areas to feed, as there might not be any vegetation worth eating in those areas any more.