Plants can camouflage themselves for protection against predators

Camouflaged plants use the same tricks as animals to blend into their background and ward off enemies

  • Camouflage has many of the same benefits to plants as it does for animals
  • Plants can use use high-contrast markings to change their perceived shape   
  • They can masquerade as unimportant object such as stones to fool predators
  • Scientists now want to look at just how important a role camouflage has in the ecology and evolution of plants
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Plants may appear passive, but they camouflage themselves just like animals, new research has revealed.

Researchers previously knew that blending into the background helps plants protect themselves from predators.

In a new study, they have found they use many of the same clever techniques as creatures.

This includes using a technique called ‘masquerade’ which makes them look like another object such as a twig or a stone.

They also blend into the background using ‘disruptive colouration’, which involves using high-contrast markings to break up the perceived shape of an object. 

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Plants may appear passive but they camouflage themselves just like animals, new research has revealed. One species that uses masquerade camouflage is Corydalis hemidicentra (pictured), a plant whose leaves match the colour of rocks where it grows

‘It is clear that plants do more than entice pollinators and photosynthesise with their colours – they hide in plain sight from enemies too,’ said Professor Martin Stevens, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation on Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

‘From ‘decoration’, where they accumulate things like dust or sand on their surface, to disruptive coloration, they use many of the same methods as animals to camouflage themselves’. 

One process called ‘decoration’ involves accumulating material for the environment.

For example, some coastal and dune plants get covered by sand because of their sticky glands, making them less conspicuous in the habitat where they live.

Researchers believe the adaptations in plants might evolve over a long period of time, as those that best match their environment have less chance of being eaten. 

‘We now need to discover just how important a role camouflage has in the ecology and evolution of plants’, said Professor Stevens. 

One species that uses masquerade camouflage is Corydalis hemidicentra, a plant whose leaves match the colour of rocks where it grows.

‘These plants are a wonderful example of how camouflage can be adapted for different habitats,’ said first author Dr Yang Niu, of the Kunming Institute of Botany.

‘Different populations of this species look different in different places’, he said.  


Researchers say plants like Corydalis hemidicentra (pictured) know how to make the right colours by mixing a few types of pigments

WHAT CAMOUFLAGE TECHNIQUES ARE USED BY BOTH PLANTS AND ANIMALS?

Plants may appear passive but they camouflage themselves just like animals, research has revealed.

Blending into the background helps plants protect themselves from predators and has the same benefits as the technique does to animals.

They use various crafty techniques including making themselves look like unimportant objects such as a stones.

Background matching – this involves blending with the colours of shapes of the habitat where they live.

Disruptive coloration – markings that create the appearance of false edges and boundaries, making it harder to see the true outline.

Masquerade – looking like something else; usually something a predator might ignore, such a stone or twig. 

Examples include living stones, some cacti, passion vines and mistletoes.

Decoration – accumulating material from the environment. 

For example, some coastal and dune plants get covered by sand because of their sticky glands, making them less conspicuous of shapes of the habitat where they live.

Researchers say plants like these know how to make the right colours by mixing a few types of pigments.

‘Those individuals with worse colour matching might have higher risk of being eaten’, said Dr Niu. 

Professor Hang Sun, also of the Kunming Institute of Botany, added: ‘We noticed that just in the alpine region of south-west China, camouflage has evolved in plants from more than 15 families.’

Unlike animals, plants may be limited in their use of camouflage by the fact that chlorophyll – which they need to live via photosynthesis – is green.


Unlike animals, plants may be limited in their use of camouflage by the fact that chlorophyll – which they need to live via photosynthesis – is green. This is Saussurea quercifolia (pictured, centre), another plant that can change colour

As a result, the researchers say it may sometimes be a disadvantage to a plant to be any other colour – meaning their camouflage comes at a cost. 

‘Animal camouflage has provided scientists with arguably the best examples of evolution in action,’ said Professor Stevens.

‘It has been widely studied since the first pioneers of evolutionary biology, but relatively little research has been done into plant camouflage’, he said. 

Plants give us a fascinating parallel way of understanding how evolution works, Professor Stevens said. 

‘Camouflage is a key defensive strategy in animals, used to illustrate and study evolution for 150 years’, researchers wrote in the paper published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

‘Ultimately, we show how plant camouflage exhibits many commonalities with animals, and how this understudied parallel phenomenon can inform key questions in ecology and evolution’.

 

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