Camouflage Southern Stingray
Southern Stingray camouflaged by sand on Key Largo Reef.

Colors and camouflage of reef creature and fish

Reef fishes and creatures are mostly known for their exquisite colors and markings.

Many reef fishes in the Key Largo, Florida Keys waters have the ability to change their regular patterns within seconds to camouflage themselves for protection. This provides us with many of the enjoyed “rainbows” of fish out on our local reefs!

And many creatures such as the Southern Stingray will nearly bury themselves in the sand to camouflage themselves.

Types of color changes and camouflage

Fish appearance can change from their regular patterns within seconds to lightened or darkened colors and patterns.

The Great Barracuda is very well known for this.

Color changes great barracuda
Great Barracuda on Key Largo, Florida Keys Reef.
Colors and camouflage Great Barracuda
Color camouflage Great Barracuda

How do fish change color to camouflage

When stimulated by nerves, or in some cases hormones, pigments in irregularly shaped cells either concentrate in the core causing a fish to pale. If they expand through radiating branches, colors will intensify. So fish use this ability for a variety of reasons: from a “sleeping” pattern, courtship, threatening, and general hiding abilities.

The cells that drive this ability are known as Chromatophores. Silvery fishes like the Great Barracuda found in Key Largo, Florida Keys have several layers of iridophores (crystals inside their cells) that mirror nearly all the light striking their bodies. By reflecting this light, this allows them to appear silver or iridescent. Then they will use this ability to blend into the surrounding sand patches they claim, and shift quickly as they cruise over the reef.

Males often ramp up their chromatophores during courtship. The downside of this is the eye-catching patterns can catch the attention of predators. They balance this risk by only flaunting the bright colors during brief courtships. You can see this behavior most notably among seagrass residents who must be cautious. If a male spots a suitable female they will flash their bright patterns only when swooping down to court. As they move away they quickly swap back to their drab camouflage.


So next time you go diving take a closer look around you–you never know whats hiding on the reef nearby!


Colors & Camouflage