Colors, patterns and skill in Herpetology: protection and warning mechanisms for living dinosaurs
Evolution is the most incredible artist on earth. It created, through natural and sexual selection, an infinite gamma of colourful, bizarre and even dangerous beauties on the planet! We all know how cute a fluffy rabbit or a singing bird can be, but what about snakes, frogs, lizards, and geckos? Do you consider them beautiful enough to be classified as masterpieces? If you agree, let me introduce you to some real nature top models, just sit down and enjoy these magnificent skilled species! These photos are a collection of seven incredible mimetic animals, all taken from Matthijs Kuijpers’s book Cold Instinct. Just remember: necessity is the mother of invention!
1. Siamese Peninsula Pit Viper: Greensleevessss isss my delight.
The Siamese Peninsula Pit Viper is a magnificent snake that lives in the forests of Malaysia. His specific name, Popeia fucata, doesn’t come from Popeye, but from mr. and mrs. Pope, two American herpetologists.
Since he’s not as strong as the famous sailor, being just 86 cm long (33 inches) at his maximum length, he developed a strong neurotoxic venom to kill his prey. This venom is deadly to humans, but we can say thanks to Mother Evolution that we’re big enough to avoid being swallowed by this snake. However, other reptiles, amphibians and small mammals should be aware that they are on this viper’s menu! Hunting is hard in a forest, since competition is everywhere. That’s why the family of this magnificent reptile, the Trimeresurus popeorum, diverge from other vipers by his marvellous green, brilliant scales that match perfectly with the green environment. That’s called cryptic coloration and is used in nature to hide.
Just remember: if you are in a Malaysian forest searching for this snake, it’s easier for her to find you than for you to succeed in your herping task!
2. Smooth Helmeted Iguana: Master of disguise!
It’s impossible that a Smooth Helmeted Iguana, aka Corytophanes cristatus, and a Siamese Peninsula Pit Viper meet in the wild, but if they should, the snake would be really confused!
This iguana has a lot of fascinating skills ready to be displayed where necessary. He lives in Central America, that is far away from the green Popeia fucata’s habitat, but it’s a hunting area for many predators (included other snakes). That’s why this iguana has another way to hide: he changes color to adapt to the surroundings, turning lighter or darker to mimic the field, even changing from brown to green! If he stays still, he resembles a branch with a leaf on top of his head. A big branch with a big leaf. In fact the Smooth Helmet Iguana is pretty large for a lizard, reaching 45 cm (17 inches) the risk of being seen is high.
That’s why if the camo skill doesn’t work and staying still isn’t enough, he has another trick in his bag: he starts running on two legs! If you have not yet seen an iguana running, check out this video here!
3. Jackson’s Chameleon: What are you staring at? Wanna make me angry?
If the Smooth Helmeted Iguana can change color to match the surroundings, what about chameleons? We all know that they are masters of camouflage! As a matter of fact they are masters, since their colors are recurring in the environment they live in, but they actually don’t change to match it! That’s an urban myth: they have mimetic colors, but that’s necessary if you don’t want to die in a forest.
The Jackson’s Chameleon is an example, with his green-yellowish skin he’s hard to see in the Tanzanian and Kenyan forests. Known to biologists as Trioceros jacksonii, he actually changes color, but for other reasons. Just like you, if he’s stressed or scared he becomes pale and, just like humans, he dresses for rendez-vous! To impress the females the color of his skin changes and, in case of competition, the chromatic variation is so dramatic that he displays a vivid yellow and red striped dress! That’s usually followed by a drastic battle between the two male contenders, where the winner is going to ensure his offspring to be part of future battles.
If you would like to read more about how chameleons are capable of changing their wardrobes, click here.
4. Golden Poison Frog: I just care if you aren’t aware, be scared if you dare!
There’s a different way to scare your rivals (and predators) with color. It’s called aposematic coloration and it consists in the use of skin pigmentation to warn other living beings. The battle garment of the Jackson’s Chameleon is an example, but there are other more astonishing ones, like the Golden Poison Frog’s yellow skin.
This little (5 cm, 2 in!) frog is completely yellow except for his fingertips that are dark like his huge eyes. He’s a natural piece of art, perfectly visible in the Colombian forest, he looks like a golden nugget on a branch. So how is it possible for him to survive? The answer is easy: he’s the most poisonous animal in the world! Every possible predator knows it, so they just avoid to eat (or touch) it!
Most poisonous frogs uses bright colors to communicate their danger like the Phyllobates terribilis, but another remarkable talent is the Müllerian mimicry. This is a bizarre way nature has to ensure animals with only small skills to survive. Are you not poisonous, venomous, with long teeth, or capable of running fast? That’s no big deal! You just have to be like the Mimic Poison Frog (Ranitomeya imitator) and resemble a real poisonous frog, with all the yellow and black warnings! Immagine the advantages you could have if you’re identical to a famous golden killer!
Unfortunately, for these disguising animals, the little golden killer is endangered of extinction due to human farming and deforestation. When the protection of the Golden Poisonous Frog and other dangerous amphibians will end, they will be a colorful meal to all the predators, now aware of their incapacity to defend themselves.
5. Mossy Frog: Ready or not, here I come, you can hide…
Now let me introduce you to another amphibian that can easily survive its predators: the Mossy Frog! If you’re able to easily spot a yellow frog, barely find a chameleon, and even harder to see a crested iguana, this frog is close to impossible to uncover! Named Theloderma corticale by taxonomy cathalogation, this frog has a perfect camouflage molting, with irregular lumps and different brownish-green shades. More than a frog he resembles a mossy rock! This is certainly one of the most perfect jobs nature has ever made!
He stays mostly still becoming practically invisible, but life is hard and sometimes they have to move around to eat insect, risking to be spotted by a predator. To scare his enemies, he inflates himself becoming bigger and round, just like the Thorny Devil. Imagine walking in south-east Asia and a piece of moss starts moving and growing by your side. Creepy, isn’t it?
6. Satanic Leaf-Tailed Gecko: If you thought that Satan met Adam and Eve as a snake… you were probably wrong!
A piece of moss that moves is certainly more bizarre than a moving leaf. That’s why the Satanic Leaf-Tailed Gecko usually stay still on the tree where he lays. If you can spot him, and it’s not easy at all, you feel like if you’re watching a pair of leaves with two eyes!
He lives in Madagascar, where he was first met by biologist George Albert Boulenger in 1888. Just to comprehend the wonder he aroused in the biologist, he has been described as a mythical animal and gained the name Uroplatus phantasticus, which means irreal flat-tail or imaginary flat-tail.
He has some of the best camouflage skills in nature, since his shape resembles perfectly a leaf, with a simulation of the leaf vein system and he can flatten himself becoming a part of the branch he’s on. He can also detach his leafed tail and run away in the event of danger! Being a leaf is helpful for another reason: if you’re hungry for insects, you can eat those that are attracted by your shape!
Like a lot of forest lizards, he’s in trouble due to deforestation and farming. Either, like the satanic snake of the Genesis, he tempts breeders with his unique shape: he’s highly requested and there’s a lot of illegal trading of this species from Madagascar. If you are a reptile collector, be careful about the provenience of this 9 cm (3.5 inches) gecko, because he’s on WWF’s “top 10 most wanted species” list of 2004! As a matter of fact, he’s just a satanic hider, not Satan himself and deserves his freedom...
7. Mossy Leaf-Tailed Gecko: Did you find me geek or don’t you see me at all?
Last but not least on this list of all the beautiful creatures Mother Nature gave us, there’s the Mossy Leaf-Tailed Gecko! Imagine you take all the talent of the Mossy Frog and of the Satanic Leaf-Tailed Gecko and put them together: you’ll have a mossy gecko that flattens his leafed body and disappears into the field (even more than the Uroplatus Phantasticus!)! Only the eyes can be spotted, but not very easily since they are coloured with similar shades of his body!
His name for experts is Uroplatus sikorae and he lives in the same area of his close cousin phantasticus. But while number 6 on our list has colours that can be considered bright in a forest, such as red, yellow or even purple (it’s pretty colorful the Madagascar forest), this one is identical to a lichen or a moss. It wasn’t enough for Mother Nature, so she decided to give him the chance to change his color to match the surroundings, similar to the Smooth Helmeted Iguana! The Mossy Leaf-Tailed Gecko even has barbs to mimic the lichens! He’s edges are flat, so if he flattens upon a tree he will resemble a part of the branch (if you search in internet some pictures, sometimes spotting him is close to impossible).
Because of his camouflage skills, he’s not that appealing as a pet, so he’s not in danger of illegal trading, but since he’s a neighbour of the Satanic Leaf-Tailed Gecko his worries come from the destruction of his habitat.
Anyway, most of these animals are in danger because of human irresponsibility. Farming and deforestation change the environment according to human egotistic interests. Humans introduce some predators that they’re not able to combat (do you know how dangerous a cat can be to a lizard?). Since the age of 18, the reptile and amphibian photographer Matthijs Kuijpers collected photos of these magnificent creatures, and now we launched his first book that features some of the most incredible lizards, snakes, toads and salamanders of the world. The Cold Instinct project shows us a selection of these species in all of their beautiful shapes, and you can find a complete description in our kickstarter campaign! We also interviewed him, so if you want to find more check our podcast here.