Can You Hide in Plain Sight?
If you could choose to be an animal, would you rather be a predator or prey? For prey animals, survival in the wild means a daily struggle to escape potential predators. Predators, on the other hand, have to work very hard to make a catch. Some prey animals have evolved clever strategies to protect or defend themselves against predators. One common strategy is camouflage. Camouflage allows animals to blend into their surroundings so predators can't see them. Will this strategy increase an animal's chance of survival? Find out in this activity by becoming a predator and hunting for camouflaged and non-camouflaged animals.
- Green shredded paper (a large handful). Buy it on Amazon (look for "paper shred") or make your own (see Prep Work). Note: The color of the shredded paper should match the color of the green matchsticks or toothpicks.
- 20 Small red sticks (matchsticks or toothpicks). Note: Colored matchsticks are available on Amazon. Colored toothpicks are available in local grocery stores or on Amazon.
- Cup to collect the toothpicks
- Sheet of paper
- Timer or stopwatch
- 2 to 4 Volunteer predators (kids)
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- Cut the paper into squares measuring approximately 5"x5".
- Put the squares through a shredder. Collect the shredded paper in a plastic bag.
- Once you have shredded all your paper, give the strips a three-dimensional structure by scrunching them while they are in the bag.
- Explain to your volunteers that in this activity they will be predator birds hunting for red and green stick "caterpillars." They will make a "beak" using their pointer finger and thumb to collect their prey. Explain that they will have 20 seconds to use their beak to quickly pick up as many caterpillars as possible from the green shredded paper and drop them into the cup.
- Start with the first volunteer. Place the green shredded paper on a table in front of you and the volunteer and spread it out a little bit. The green paper represents green plants or grass that the caterpillars live in.
- Ask the volunteer to close their eyes. Then place 20 green and 20 red sticks randomly in the green paper shreds. Don't try to hide the sticks; just loosely place them into the paper shred pile, one by one. Try to be random about where they are. This simulates camouflaged and non-camouflaged caterpillars of the same type living together in the same plant environment.Which colored sticks do you think represent the camouflaged caterpillars, and which represent the non-camouflaged caterpillars?
- Set your timer for 20 seconds. Tell the volunteer to open their eyes. Say "Go!" and start the timer. The volunteer must now collect the sticks. When the timer beeps, make sure the volunteer stops collecting.Do you think the predator will collect more green caterpillars or red caterpillars?
- Count the number of red and green sticks in the collection cup. On a sheet of paper, write down how many green and how many red sticks the first volunteer collected.Did the predator pick more green or more red stick caterpillars? Can you explain your results?
- Remove all the remaining sticks from the shredded paper.
- Repeat Steps 2 through 6 with the next volunteer.
- Repeat the experiment until all volunteers have completed their prey hunts. Remember to write down the number of red and green sticks collected by each volunteer.
- Look at the data for the different volunteers and compare your results.Did all volunteers get a similar result? Why do you think this is the case? Do your results support the hypothesis that camouflaged animals have a better chance of survival than uncamouflaged ones?
Was it easy to pick the sticks from the shredded paper? You might have noticed that it was pretty easy to spot and pick out the red sticks from the green paper shreds. The colors red and green are very different, so in the red sticks stand out from the green paper. The green sticks, however, blend in nicely with the green paper. Even if they are lying in plain sight on top, it is difficult to spot them. Consequently, you should have found that most volunteers picked more red sticks than green sticks. The green sticks, which represented camouflaged caterpillars, had a higher chance of survival compared to the red sticks, which represented non-camouflaged caterpillars. This is exactly what happens in nature. Any animal that uses camouflage to blend in with its surroundings will be harder for a predator to spot. It will most likely live longer than a non-camouflaged animal that lives in the same environment.
It can be hard to survive in the wild. Most animals are hunted by other animals, even if they are hunters themselves. For example, some types of bats hunt insects. But bats are also hunted by owls, hawks, and snakes. So bats are sometimes predators and sometimes prey. Animal species change over time, or "evolve," as traits that help the animal survive are more likely to be passed along to the next generation. Different species of animals have different adaptations that help them survive. Some species have protective features on their bodies. Two examples are porcupine quills and armadillo armor. Other animals have skin coatings that taste bad or are poisonous. And some animals can blend into their surroundings or fool predators by their appearance. This is called camouflage.
There are several camouflage tactics that animals use. A very effective one is called "concealing coloration." Animals with concealing coloration have colors and patterns that match where they live (their "habitat"). For example, brown forest animals are hard to see because they match the browns of the tree trunks and ground. Arctic animals with concealing coloration are white to match the Arctic snow (Figure 1). Some animals, like chameleons, can even change their skin color to better match the background.
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For Further Exploration
- In the wild, adaptation and evolution happen over many generations. There is a way to simulate this phenomenon with this activity. Once a volunteer is done hunting for their stick caterpillars, double each of the remaining sticks by adding another of the same color to the pile. For instance, if there are 4 red and 15 green sticks left, then add 4 more red and 15 more green sticks. This represents the surviving caterpillars passing along their color genes to the next generation (their babies). Then repeat another round of predation. Now how many of each color are left? Repeat until all remaining "caterpillars" are the same color. How many rounds did it take until all the uncamouflaged stick caterpillars were gone?
- Another variation of this experiment would be to just hide 10 red stick caterpillars in the green paper shreds. Then tell the volunteer to pick out all 10 red caterpillars and time how long it takes. Then repeat the experiment, but this time hide 10 green stick caterpillars in the green paper shreds. How long does it take for the predator to find all the camouflaged caterpillars compared to the uncamouflaged ones?
- Do some research on how different animals use camouflage. What types of things do animals try to look like? Do some animals try to look like other animals? Do some predators use camouflage too? Think of a way to investigate how effective different types of camouflage are.
- Try repeating the experiment but adding more stick colors to the mix. Do your results change?
- National Geographic: Camouflage
- Kiddle: Natural selection facts for kids
- Bored Panda: 65 Unbelievable Examples of Animal Camouflage that Will Make You Look Twice