Coloration and Behavior- Stripes for Different Purposes

The diversity of coloration in the animal world is vast, though there are some common patterns that arise throughout the taxa (for example, darker on the dorsal side and lighter on the ventral side, spots/mottling, vivid coloration, etc.). This post will explore stripes, the variety of animals that have them, and why that pattern is beneficial to them.

Stripes may seem like a glaringly bold coat for an animal (and occasionally, they are), but stripes can actually serve as an excellent camouflage, or crypsis.They ‘break the animal up’ into different sections of color, so when placed against a background, their distinctive shape less likely to be perceived. This is called disruptive coloration. Not being seen can have a lot of advantages.

Credit: cotinis, liscenced under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Credit: Koshy Koshy, licensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic

The stripes of the tiger provide the same type of camouflage as those of the bongo. A tiger is well hidden in the forest or tall grass. However, the tiger does not need to hide from predators, they need to hide from prey. In a sense, their cryptic coloration could be described as aggressive mimicry. Domestic tabby cats and the extinct thylacine (aka Tasmanian wolf or tiger) are other striped predators.

Credit: pedesign-de, Public Domain

Zebras too have a highly disruptive striped pattern as well, though they are herd animals, unlike the bongo and the tiger. Their striped do protect them from predators though. In a herd, the stripes make it hard to tell where one zebra ends and another begins. A predator will have a hard time singling out an animal to chase and in what direction the animal is moving.. Another benefit of the stripes is that it makes the animals less attractive to biting flies due to the way light is polarized off of their bodies, according to researchers. It has also been suggested that zebras can recognize one another by their specific patterns, which are as unique as human fingerprints.

A single zebra also can benefit from it’s disruptive pattern as camouflage in some situations. Credit: Steve Garvie, licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

Stripes can also serve as a warning that an animal is dangerous. This is called aposomatism. Black and white are common warning colors, and the highly venomous sea krait wears them well, as well as monarch caterpillars, striped skunks, and lionfish. Harmless batesian mimics may also have striped patterns as a predator deterrent (falsely advertised poison). A well known example is the venomous coral and non-venomous king snake (you may have heard the saying, “red with black is a friend of Jack, red with yellow will kill a fellow”).

Credit: Jens Peterson, licensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

6 thoughts on “Coloration and Behavior- Stripes for Different Purposes

  1. Love the post and especially your final statement- that there can be many alternative explanations. But to go from ‘story’ to understanding, the need for good experiments and solid data is illustrated really well with these examples!


  2. I’m so fascinated by how these patterns both benefit predators and prey so successfully (I’m assuming the same goes for spotted patterns as well). I know the black ‘”tear marks” on cheetahs faces reflect glare from sunlight I wonder if the spots on the bongos face have a similar purpose.


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