Rainbow made from photographs of animals

Exploring Evolution through Colour

Photograph of a robin on a blue post

Task: Have a look out of your window. What animals can you see?

Can you see a robin with a red breast? The robin shows this off when defending its territory. What about a peacock butterfly with ‘eyes’ on its wings? These are used to confuse animals that might want to eat it. And have you seen a brown bird – perhaps a sparrow, dunnock or female blackbird? Brown feathers make these birds more difficult for predators to spot.

Close up photograph of a stick insect

The patterns and colours we see in animals show some amazing adaptations. In this Nature Classroom we will explore evolution through animal colour.

This week you can: find out about adaptations and evolution with our Natural Selection game; design your own camouflage and warning colours; play a computer game looking at animal mimicry; and create an origami dresser crab. We have activities to suit different ages – scroll down and chose the ones you think you’ll enjoy the most.

These activities support learning in the following areas:

Photograph of a shield bug
Shieldbug. Image credit: Matt Lowe

Identify and name a variety of common animals

Identify that most living things live in habitats to which they are suited

Recognise that living things have changed over time

Identify how animals are adapted to suit their environment in different ways and that adaptation may lead to evolution

Asking relevant questions; gathering, recording and presenting data; recording findings using simple scientific language, drawings, and labelled diagrams.

Animal Adaptations

Annotated sketch of a three-toed sloth

Task: Think of an animal you really like. Draw a picture and label it up.

You can download our Animal Explorer sheet to help if you’d like.

What is it that you really like about your animal? Does it have big teeth? Or a colourful pattern of its wings? Does it make an interesting sound? Add these as notes to your picture. Take a look at your finished artwork – a lot of the features you labelled up are what we might call adaptations.

Definition: an adaptation is a feature of an animal, plant or other living thing that makes it better suited to its environment and way of life.

Adaptations come about because of Natural Selection. This was the Big Idea that Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace came up with over 150 years ago. Let’s explore how it works.

Natural Selection: How does it work?

Here’s a ‘comic strip’ to give you a bit of an idea of how natural selection works.

Comic strip showing natural selection with frogs and herons
There are two colours of frogs in this picture. The frogs with better camouflage are more likely to survive as they are less likely to be seen by predators – in this case, the heron. The frogs that survive reproduce, passing their genes on to the next generation, including their genes for colour. The frogs of the next generation inherit the colours of their parents, so more of the frogs are well-camouflaged in their habitat.

Task: Play our Natural Selection Game

  1. Chose a background – this could be in the garden, on a rug, on the table – just a horizontal surface where you can lay out some small pictures. We’ve chosen some leaves from the garden for our background.
  2. Now create your counters. You can download and print out beetle counters to colour in, or you could design your own.
  1. Colour your counters in two different colours: one colour that blends in well with the background, and one colour that stands out against it. You will need at least 8 of each colour. We’ve chosen green to blend in and orange to stand out.
  2. Now you’re ready to play!

Here’s an example round:

  1. Lay out 7 orange counters. This is the starting population of our species. Add one green one. This is a mutation in the genes that has led to this insect having a different colour.
  2. Now play the predator. A bird comes along who is very hungry (that’s you) and eats 4 of the beetles. Which do you think it will choose? The ones that are easiest to see. So take away 4 of the orange counters.
  3. Now all the beetles that survives will reproduce – they have babies. To keep things simple, each beetle will have one baby that looks like it. how many orange and how many green beetles are there now?
  4. Go through the whole thing again. The hungry bird comes along and eats 4 beetles. The survivors have babies that look like them. How many orange beetles and how many green beetles are there now?
  5. Because the green beetles are more likely to survive, they have increased in number over the generations.

Now you have seen how it works, why not try your own round. If you have lots of counters you can set yourself a time limit for how many you can pick up each time. Can you see how the numbers of each colour change each round? Although we have simplified things a bit – particularly with the reproduction (where there is only one parent instead of two for each new beetle) – this pattern of change over the generations is clear.

Animal Colours as Adaptations

Animals use colours in lots of ways to survive better in their environment. Here are a few examples:

  • Photograph of nightjar on the ground
  • Close up photograph of a stick insect
  • Photograph of a giant swallowtail caterpillar
  • Photograph of a peacock butterfly
  • Photograph of a peacock butterfly
  • Photograph of a strawberry poison dart from
  • Photograph of a monarch butterfly
  • Photograph of a wasp

Some animals are shades of brown or green to blend in with their environment. This is called camouflage. It works for prey by making it more difficult for predators to see them. It also works for predators, allowing them to creep up to their prey without being spotted.

What about animals that are very brightly coloured? For some, these are warning colours saying ‘don’t eat me, I’m poisonous’. Some animals use their colours to ‘dazzle’ predators. Sometimes colours can be used to attract a mate.

Photograph of a peacock butterfly

Task: Design the perfect camouflage and dazzling warning colours

Remember the peacock butterfly with brown underneath and red on top of their wings? Design a butterfly that can blend in with its wings closed, and dazzle a predator with its wings open. You can download our template here:

Why not try some different ways to create your patterns.

The patterns on real butterfly wings are made from lots of tiny scales. You could try collaging your pattern from squares cut from magazines or other scrap paper.

Want to have a symmetrical pattern, with both sides of your butterfly looking the same? Why not try a paint blot butterfly print? You will need to put some newspaper down as this can get messy. Put some splodges of paint (poster paint works well for this) on one side of your butterfly. Then fold your paper in half along the body and press down. Peel the two sides of your paper apart and you should have matching wings. Leave to dry.

Paint blot butterfly

Nature’s Cheats

Photograph of a common hoverfly
This hoverfly has black and yellow stripes like a wasp but has no sting. Image credit: Bill Amos

We’ve seen how some animals are brightly coloured to say to predators ‘ don’t eat me, I’m poisonous’, or ‘stay away, I can sting’. These colours are called warning colours, and are often red, orange or yellow against black. However, there are some animals that cheat. They have warning colours but are completely harmless. This is called Mimicry.

Professor Christ Jiggins and his research group in the Department of Zoology work on a group of butterflies called passion-vine butterflies, or Heliconius. These are found in tropical and subtropical areas of the Americas, and show a range of beautiful patterns on their wings. They developed this online game all about mimicry in passion-vine butterflies:

In this game, you are the predator again, choosing butterflies to eat. BUT there is one type of butterfly that is poisonous that you have to avoid. Watch as the game goes on how the pattern of the poisonous species spreads, so it looks like almost all the butterflies are poisonous. HOWEVER, some of the butterflies are cheating. They have the same patterns on their wings as the poisonous species but are actually completely harmless. Over time this pattern becomes more common as the predator (you) avoids it.

You can download an extension activity here, collecting data from your results playing this game to think more about evolution.

And finally…

We’ve been looking at animals that produce their own colours and patterns with their bodies. There are some animals that have a different adaptation – using what they can find around them to create their camouflage. One such animal is called a dresser or decorator crab. It sticks objects and even other animals to its shell to help it to hide in their environment.

Task: Make an origami crab and ‘decorate’ it like a dresser crab.

You can download our origami instruction sheet here. This is a simple origami pattern, so is not anatomically accurate – crabs in real life have many more legs!

Now chose your background – the environment you want your crab to be in. Can you find any scraps from magazines, leaves from the garden etc that you can use to decorate your crab to help it to blend in?

6 thoughts on “Exploring Evolution through Colour

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