Ever changing colours: unravelling the wild’s most vibrant mysteries

Our world is filled with so many wonderful things and, of course, one of them is the marvellous colours that can be found in our oceans, rainforests, countrysides, and beyond. From using them to attract a mate to brandishing them as a warning to rivals, there are lots of reasons why animals are the colours they are. But, how can some be so vibrant and what about the creatures that have the ability to change the colour of their skin altogether?

What makes a colour?

The majority of the colours found in the animal kingdom are a result of the pigments made by the chemical processes that take place within a creature’s skin cells. Shades of black and brown are created as a result of pigments called melanins; and yellow, red, and orange colours come from a pigment known as carotenoids (and it’s this very pigment that can be found in daffodils, carrots, and egg yolks). However, when it comes to colours such as blues, greens, and violets, they tend to stem from the way in which an animal’s scales, skin, or feathers reflect the light.

Colour-changing tactics

There are thousands of colourful species living on this planet but there are a select few that have the incredible ability to change the colour of their skin, either through neural or hormonal control.

Cuttlefish, for example, are thought to fluctuate the colours of their skin as a way to camouflage themselves and avoid predators. Their colour changing capability is a result of the cells in their skin, which can either disperse or concentrate the melanin (the dark pigments) within seconds, allowing them to instantly change their skin colour.

Mood changing masters

Panther chameleons (shown here) have the ability to change the background colour of their skin from green – when the creature is relaxed – to red or orange – when the animal is excited. They do this by changing the colour-reflecting properties in the crystals found in their skin cells (called iridophores) all through neural control!

Camouflage experts

Another advantage to being able to change the colour of your skin, is the ability to blend in and become part of the scenery! The peacock flounder is a perfect example of this. Despite having both of its eyes on one side of its body, this flat fish has the power to change its skin colour based on the colours it can see in their surrounding environment. Once it has detected the colours and patterns it needs to mimic, the fish releases hormones that then changes the distribution of the pigments found within the skin.

Approach with caution

If you ever see a brightly coloured creature, such as this strawberry poison frog, it’s highly likely that their skin contains a toxin. Some species release toxic fluid as it makes them taste bitter to any curious and hungry predators, whereas the toxins of other species can be lethal (so they’ll only be able to make that mistake once!).

What’s your favourite fact about the colours (and colour changing skills) found in the animal kingdom?

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