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Pages (PDF): 66
Publication Date: 1867

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Chapters include: Importance of the Principle of Utility; Popular Theories of Colour in Animals; Importance of Concealment as Influencing Colour; Special Modifications of Colour; Theory of Protective Colouring; Objection that Colour, as being dangerous, should not exist in Nature; Mimicry; Mimicry among Lepidoptera; Lepidoptera mimicking other Insects; Mimicry among Beetles; Beetles mimicking other Insects; Insects mimicking Species of other Orders; Cases of Mimicry among the Vertebrata; Mimicry among Snakes; Mimicry among Birds; Mimicry among Mammals; and more.


The adaptation of the external colouring of animals to their conditions of life has long been recognised, and has been imputed either to an originally created specific peculiarity, or to the direct action of climate, soil, or food. Where the former explanation has been accepted, it has completely checked inquiry, since we could never get any further than the fact of the adaptation. There was nothing more to be known about the matter. The second explanation was soon found to be quite inadequate to deal with all the varied phases of the phænomena, and to be contradicted by many well-known facts. For example, wild rabbits are always of grey or brown tints well suited for concealment among grass and fern. But when these rabbits are domesticated, without any change of climate or food, they vary into white or black, and these varieties may be multiplied to any extent, forming white or black races. Exactly the same thing has occurred with pigeons; and in the case of rats and mice, the white variety has not been shown to be at all dependent on alteration of climate, food, or other external conditions. In many cases the wings of an insect not only assume the exact tint of the bark or leaf it is accustomed to rest on, but the form and veining of the leaf or the exact rugosity of the bark is imitated; and these detailed modifications cannot be reasonably imputed to climate or to food, since in many cases the species does not feed on the substance it resembles, and when it does, no reasonable connexion can be shown to exist between the supposed cause and the effect produced. It was reserved for the theory of Natural Selection to solve all these problems, and many others which were not at first supposed to be directly connected with them. To make these latter intelligible, it will be necessary to give a sketch of the whole series of phænomena which may be classed under the head of useful or protective resemblances.

Concealment, more or less complete, is useful to many animals, and absolutely essential to some. Those which have numerous enemies from which they cannot escape by rapidity of motion, find safety in concealment. Those which prey upon others must also be so constituted as not to alarm them by their presence or their approach, or they would soon die of hunger. Now it is remarkable in how many cases nature gives this boon to the animal, by colouring it with such tints as may best serve to enable it to escape from its enemies or to entrap its prey. Desert animals as a rule are desert-coloured. The lion is a typical example of this, and must be almost invisible when crouched upon the sand or among desert rocks and stones. Antelopes are all more or less sandy-coloured. The camel is preeminently so. The Egyptian cat and the Pampas cat are sandy or earth-coloured. The Australian kangaroos are of the same tints, and the original colour of the wild horse is supposed to have been a sandy or clay-colour.

The desert birds are still more remarkably protected by their assimilative hues. The stonechats, the larks, the quails, the goatsuckers and the grouse, which abound in the North African and Asiatic deserts, are all tinted and mottled so as to resemble with wonderful accuracy the average colour and aspect of the soil in the district they inhabit. The Rev. H. Tristram, in his account of the ornithology of North Africa in the 1st volume of the “Ibis,” says: “In the desert, where neither trees, brush-wood, nor even undulation of the surface afford the slightest protection to its foes, a modification of colour which shall be assimilated to that of the surrounding country, is absolutely necessary. Hence without exception the upper plumage of every bird, whether lark, chat, sylvain, or sand-grouse, and also the fur of all the smaller mammals, and the skin of all the snakes and lizards, is of one uniform isabelline or sand colour.” After the testimony of so able an observer it is unnecessary to adduce further examples of the protective colours of desert animals.

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