The mystery of megafaunal microcamouflage

Everyone knows that giraffes and big cats are spotted, and zebras are striped.

And most would agree that these patterns function as camouflage in at least a loose sense.

However, how many have noticed that the disruptive markings in giraffes include spotting/striping too small-scale to make sense as camouflage?

The dark blotches/spots on the pelage of giraffes range in diameter from tens of centimetres to mere millimetres, despite the likelihood that both sizes will be viewed from similar distances by potential predators ( and

Under which circumstances could it possibly be true that the tiny spots - which are visible only at close range - on the forehead, temples and/or crown help giraffes to hide?

Forehead of adult female Giraffa tippelskirchi:

Temples and crown of mature male Giraffa tippelskirchi:

Temples of adolescent male Giraffa tippelskirchi:

Temples and crown of infant Giraffa tippelskirchi:

Temples and crown of mature male Giraffa camelopardalis:

Forehead of mature female Giraffa camelopardalis:

Forehead and temples of Giraffa reticulata:

In zebras, the striping on the forehead and temples is smaller-scale than that on the neck. However, the disparity is not as great and the fine-grained pattern is not as anatomically localised as in giraffes:

In big cats there is no particular disparity, because the spots are all of the same order of magnitude:

Panthera onca:

Panthera pardus:

Panthera uncia:

Panthera tigris:

One possible explanation is that the micro-spotting on the heads of giraffes functions not for camouflage but for individual recognition. This is not necessarily undermined by the fact that most individuals lack spotting on the forehead ( and, temples and crown.

This explanation would be in line with the general tendency for antelopes to be most individually variable in their colouration on the face, particularly the forehead (e.g. However, it is undermined by the observations that gregariousness in giraffes tends to be promiscuous, bonds among individuals seem to be weak, and the form of the horns and horn-tufts would seem sufficient for individual recognition.

Posted by milewski milewski, November 25, 2021 10:41 PM


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