UNDERCOVER – A Closer Look at Some of the Masters of Disguise

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Tuvia Cohen 

Children’s games are fun, and should not be discouraged. Games are to children what work is to an adult. Of the wide spectrum of games available to the young, one of the most popular, exciting, and certainly cheapest is called Hide and Seek. In this particular game, which seems to enjoy universal popularity as well as uniformity of rules, one individual stands in the corner, with his eyes closed, and counts until 100 (“1, 2 …  miss a few… 99, 100”).  

 

Ready or Not! 

While the chosen one is counting, the other members of the group have to hide themselves around the house. Favorite hiding places include broom closets, behind armchairs, underneath beds, and beneath tables. After reaching the agreed number, the seeker shouts out, “100 – coming, ready or not!” and then attempts to locate the temporarily invisible members of his group. Having played the game before, the seeker usually knows where to look, and when he finds the hider, mutual squeals of delight are emitted, and the first person back to base is the winner. 

The great shame is that the people hiding cannot really conceal themselves effectively. If they hid in the broom closet, then no sooner does the excited seeker open the door than they are immediately spotted.  

We would like to suggest an improvement to this game, which will greatly enhance its enjoyment. The suggestion is that all participants should be able to blend into the background of their hiding place entirely. The one hiding in the broom closet should take on the appearance of brooms, the one concealed in the pantry should resemble a jar of peanut butter and a bag of flour, and the one furtively crouching under the bed should be able to simulate a pair of slippers. If the suggestion is adopted, then the game of Hide and Seek will go on for much longer; in fact, it will never end. 

Those endowed with a skeptical nature might protest that the suggestion is impractical. How can anyone change his appearance to resemble brooms, jars or slippers? The very idea is quite preposterous. We disagree! Go to the animal world and there you will see creatures that are able to camouflage themselves to a remarkable degree. If they can do it, why can’t we? Let us have a closer look. 

 

Changing Skin Color 

A toad is a large frog. Should you ever walk along a wooded path and wish to see one, you would probably be unsuccessful. The toad looks like the lump of earth that it sits on, just with extra refinements. On a dry day, its skin is light brown to match the dry leaves and soil. When the rain falls and darkens the ground, the toad’s skin darkens, too.  

There is a member of the spider family called the crab spider. This creature has the capability of changing its color to match the flower it is sitting on. Its perfect camouflage hides it from insects when they settle on the flower to feed. Then the spider moves quickly to catch them for its own dinner.  

Down in the sea lives a flatfish called a dab. As it moves along the seabed, its skin color changes to match the background. If it were placed on a chessboard, the dab would become checkered.  

Of all the color-changing creatures, the chameleon has the biggest color range. To blend in with its surroundings, and thus remain unnoticed, its skin can switch from black to yellow, from blue to red! 

 

Matter of Survival 

Let us pause for a moment and pose a question. Imagine that you were dissatisfied with the color of your skin. Perhaps you had freckles and wish you hadn’t. Perhaps you had no freckles and wished you had. Do you think that standing in front of a mirror, repeating time and time again, “Skin, grow freckles” or “Freckles, disappear,” would change your appearance?  

However hard we try, we cannot (without external means) alter either the color or texture of our skin or hair. Animals, however, can. How did they learn this obviously difficult task? Is it possible, for example, that originally the toads were colored bright orange? When they discovered that gaudy colors were attracting the attention of predators, they held an emergency meeting of the International Confederation of Toads to discuss their plight. One inspired toad put forward the suggestion that they should all change their skin color to adapt to the environment. The motion was carried unanimously (with loud cheers of “Toad-ah-rabbah”) and henceforth the toads lived happily ever after.  

Do you believe in fairy tales? Let us be clear. Animals’ necessity to camouflage is not a game. It is a matter of survival. If they did not have the capability of successfully concealing themselves (the very best that human predators – soldiers – can do is to stick some twigs in their helmets) they must have been endowed with the necessary machinery and instincts from the beginning of their existence. 

 

Creatures in Costume 

There is a small insect found in tropical rain forests called the Javanese leaf insect. Even if you chose that location for your Lag B’Omer outing, it is unlikely that you would find it, for it mimics the leaf to perfection. Its skin looks like the skin of a real leaf, green and rubbery, and even the detailed structure of a central rib and veins are faithfully reproduced. It has marks on its body to resemble holes in a dying leaf, and even its legs look like curled-up leaves. Lying still, the insect is virtually undetectable.  

In the same rain forest, the less friendly boa constrictor’s skin does not mimic its surroundings. It is, however, highly effective at blending with the characteristic dappling of sunlight filtering through leaves in exactly the same way as military camouflage is used (or, to be more precise, military camouflage tries to copy the methods used by animals).  

Zebras, which live on the African grasslands where lions are often out looking for a meal, confuse their mortal enemy by their distinctive stripes, which in bright daylight can disguise their shape. In the dim light of dawn or dusk, the stripes seem to blend together and help the zebras blend into the background. What is even more remarkable is that young zebras have their striped coats from birth, so that they can hide in the herd with the mother zebra, where the stripes of all the zebras blend together. 

 

Masters of Disguise  

If you are looking for real ingenuity in disguise, consider the decorator crab. This crab, which lives in the sea, disguises its presence by covering its body with objects from the seabed. It uses seaweed, bits of sponge and mosses to complete the cover.  

Amazingly, all these objects are attached to the back of the crab by thousands of tiny hooked bristles which cover its entire body. Those bristles did not grow by accident!  

In contrast, the squid, which shares the ocean floor as its habitat, ejects a small cloud of ink, roughly the shape and size of itself, and then slips away while the enemy is distracted by the ink cloud. What equipment does the squid require to produce and eject ink, and who told it what its shape is? Does it have a mirror? 

 

Animals in Winter Coats 

No one likes to be conspicuous. Would you like to wear a bright red kippah in shul on Yom Kippur where everyone is wearing white? Similarly, animals with dark coats would easily be seen in the snow.  

Fortunately for them – “them” being the snowy owl, the polar bear, the snowshoe hare, the stoat, and the lemming, among others – they grow a white coat to help them hide. Some are white or pale-colored all year round, whereas others change the color of their coat to suit the season.  

The ptarmigan is a bird which has a white coat in winter, but in spring starts to grow its speckled brown summer coat. The male keeps his white coat far longer than the female, because hunters will see him before they spot the well-camouflaged female, who is sitting on her eggs! Accident or design? The answer is clear – this cannot be an accident. 

The message cannot be hidden or disguised. Animal camouflage is so clever, so cunning, and so vital to its very existence, that the design involved cannot be concealed. The truth cannot be camouflaged! There must be a master Designer.