The importance of color in the animal kingdom

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We people are quite privileged with our ability to see color. Our sight is our main sense, unlike that of many animals. Color to us tends to be a matter of taste, but for animals color is a matter of life or death. So what can animals see? And what does color mean to them? And what do their colors and color patterns tell us about them? Come have a stroll with me for a glimpse at mother nature and what she can tell us about color and learn how to use color in your creature designs on the fly!

Hi! My name is Tessa, I’m a Dutch artist, art director, and creative project manager. I love to share my passion for this craft, nature, art and fantasy, and do that by creating this archive and community, alongside my company Tez Art & Design.

Table of Contents (Click to (un)fold)

What is color

To understand the importance of color in the animal kingdom, it’s helpful to understand what color is. Color can only be seen when there is a source of light. Color is technically a reflection of light. Parts of light (wavelength) are absorbed by an object, the rest of this wavelength bounces off of this object, and this light determines what color we perceive and what color we think an object is.
Light is pure white. All colors combined into a ray of light together make white. You can tell that white actually is a myriad of colors when you see a rainbow. In this rainbow the different wavelengths of the different colors are split apart by tiny raindrops, showing us these wonderful colors. In the digital world, we know this color spectrum as ‘RGB’ (red, green and blue). Only light creates white from color.

Pigments are usually based on CMYK (Cyan, magenta, yellow, and black), because pigments aren’t light themselves, but reflect light instead, all colors combined (or absorbed if you will) will create black and the absence of color is white.

Color as a tool for communication in the animal kingdom

Although most animals don’t see as much color as we do, they can still have a very strong vision. They can be great at seeing movement or contrasts for example. Still, color can be a matter of life and death in the animal kingdom. Many animal species use different tactics for different reasons. Knowing the how and the why is extremely interesting, and if you are a creature designer: This kind of knowledge will be invaluable to you!

Some colorful examples

Zebra stripesCamouflage against both predators and insects.Next time you see a horse with a zebra blanket, think twice before judging! It’s the most effective way to stop flies from bugging the animal. Zebra’s use these stripes to find family members too.
Lime green throat of the Magnificent Bird of ParadiseAttracting mates and attracting mates only!Magnificent Birds of Paradise are already well… Magnificent. But apparently, they need lime green insides to stand out even more for the ladies!
White eye-linerAmplifies light entering the eye.Just look at the tiger and the lion and some of our housecats. They are nocturnal. Having these white patches of fur under their eyes helps them see even when there’s no moon out.
Black penguinsIt helps them warm up in an icy world.Black absorbs colors. Color is light and light is energy, therefore absorbing this energy, brings warmth. Black will always give the most warmth and white the least.
Brightly colored butterfliesFinding mates and stating they’re poisonous.Oke, they’re not all poisonous but showing colors that are widely accepted as poisonous help in their survival. It is called mimicry. These colors also aid in finding the best mates from their own species.
Flamingo pink!Side-effect from a shrimp diet and finding mates.The healthiest and strongest flamingoes can usually feed the most. Females that are brooding or have young are usually near white. They’re not interesting to males.

Using these examples in your creature designs

Technically what you can create with your creature designs is unlimited, but as you may know: To make a creature design believable, it’s wise to draw inspiration from what mother nature put on this planet throughout millions of years. There is a reason why animals and plants look the way they do. It’s called evolution. And evolution is restricted by the laws of nature. Think of gravity and time, or environment, which is an enormous factor and trigger for evolution to happen.

As you can see: Nature is limited by these laws and environmental factors. It draws between the lines, but also attempts to find new ground all the time. Unlimited possibilities are a pain in the ass. Just look at your color wheel, there is a limit to color, but when you have to pick one, the options seem annoyingly unlimited. Knowing how nature works and working from specific features like color and patterns helps you set much needed limits.

Don’t be fooled by creature designers creating something seemingly from scratch. They don’t! They use heavy reference from mother nature. They’re just skilled enough to fool you into thinking they created something from scratch. A good creature designer follows the rules of mother nature to create something new that’s believable. A great creature designer can break these rules and create something even more magnificent.

What colors can animals see?

Depends on who you’re asking, really. There is even an interesting animal species out there that can see WAY more colors than we can, but simply can’t when put to the test. The reason why? It’s unknown, but it’s most likely these animals process color and light in a whole different way than any other animal on the planet.
This exceptional animal is the Mantis Shrimp. We only process three channels of color, the mantis shrimp can perceive 12. This means it can detect color in the ultraviolet and polarized spectrum, unlike human beings. It just cannot differentiate between colors as well as we can.
But generally seen, animals can be grouped pretty well:

AnimalColors they can seeRelative to humans
BirdsFive to seven colorsMore
SpidersUltraviolet and greenDifferent
InsectsUltraviolet, blue ,and yellowDifferent
ReptilesSome color and infraredDifferent
AmphibiansMost see some colorLess
FishMost see just two colorsLess
CrustaceansBlue and red, polarized lightLess
CephalopodsBlue, polarized lightLess
FelinesBlue-violet and yellow-green, but weaklyLess
CaninesBlue and yellow, but weaklyLess
RabbitsBlue and greenLess
SquirrelsBlue and yellowLess
South American monkeysCan’t see red wellLess
RatsUltraviolet, blue, and greenDifferent
Chimps and African monkeysSame as humansSame
These are some rough indications. Obviously there are way more (sub)species with each their own nuances.

Different color spectrum’s and expressions

There is more than we can see. What we perceive as something unseeable, or maybe only something we can broadcast from (radio-waves which are way off to the right of the reds we can see. Some animals can see into the infrared spectrum (which is followed by microwaves, radar, and radio waves). While others can perceive UV-light (which is followed by X-rays, Gamma rays, and cosmic rays). But they are all a form of light = energy, it’s just not visible to anybody.

CC BY-SA 3.0,

Our sight is quite limited, but with the exception of a few animal species, specifically birds, we can see way more than most creatures inhabiting this planet.

Colors in the UV spectrum

Colors in the UV spectrum are thought to be kinda purple-ish, Many species like birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles, insects, and some mammals can see UV light. It’s thought that in the past nearly all mammals could see UV light, however requires four types of color cones to be visible. It’s very likely that at some point mammals lost one or two of these types of cones altogether, making them unable to see ultra-violet light.
Ever seen a blacklight before? It emits ultra-violet light. It’s know to attract insects (and trap them) but it also works as a disinfectant on some surfaces. These lights are a cold blue or a deep purple. We cannot see UV, but it’s the closest we can get to actually seeing it.

Many flowers and insects look a whole lot different under UV-light. This guy properly explains how it all works, and even better: How flowers look under UV-light. The most striking thing: The (to us invisible) contrasts!

Colors in the infra-red spectrum

Infra-red is very interesting. It’s more of a warmth-map, something we use all the time to detect if someone is sick or to find a burglar in the woods. So, are there any animals that are infra-red? Well, yea, in fact, everything is. It doesn’t need to be alive to be infra-red, it just needs to have a temperature above -100°F and under 10000°F (-73,33333 degrees Celsius and +5573.333 degrees Celsius). Just like UV-light, we have our ways to ‘see’ Infra-Red as well. Black areas of an infra-red image are cool, blue a little warmer, followed by purple, red, orange, yellow, and finally white, which will be the warmest areas.

Many reptiles and especially snakes heavily rely on infra-red, it’s how they find and catch their prey. They detect their body heat through grooves near their nostrils with warmth-sensitive receptors. Just like eyes, the distance between both grooves helps to determine the distance to their prey.

Polarized light

Polarized light is actually a form of electromagnetic radiation. There are several forms of polarized light, all with different wavelengths. Animals that can see this, can actually detect the oscillation plane of the electric field vectors of light. In nature, polarized light is caused by reflection at a shiny surface, or by scattering of unpolarized sunlight. You can find polarized sunlight in many different habitats both terrestrial and marine.

Unpolarized light becomes polarized when all the light-waves angle in the exact same direction. Thus forming a shape or curve when hitting an object. This can be manipulated with polarizing sunglasses, which stop unpolarized light rays coming from a reflective road for example. Or Polaroid camera’s, or polarized eyes, like that of the Mantis shrimp, the fiddler crab and some other crustaceans.

As you can see, unpolarized light will react differently to different kinds of surfaces, creating significant contrasts between said surfaces. This way tension within or around an object can be visualized in color and contrasts, even when the actual subjects have completely different colors and contrasts in the human color spectrum.


Iridescence is the reflection of light in different direction, creating the illusion of iridescent colors and a wide spectrum of color variation on one and the same surface. This depending on the angle you look at it. We see this a lot in birds and butterflies, but many other animals sport this feature too. The surface structure of their wings (or other body parts for that matter) is such that it breaks light into different wavelengths, usually within a specific range of colors. E.g.: A visibly blue butterfly wing may sport neighboring colors in the color spectrum, like turquoise and purples, but not yellows. They are there, but they’re there in such small quantities that we don’t see it with out human eyes and need a microscope to do so.

In other animals, you may see more colors, like in some specific snakes. This is likely due to their shapes and the thickness of their skins relative to a butterfly wing. The fun thing though is: The animals are usually not the color they appear to be. More often than not they have a pale or earthy color, or grey, or muddy green. It’s just the cell structure in the upper layer of their bodies that tear up sunlight and reflect rainbow-like colors. This iridescence confuses predators and prey and attracts mates. The advantage is that when looked at from the wrong angle: The real camouflaging colors appear, rather than the striking iridescent colors.


Bio-luminescence is a subject well-discussed before. It’s actual light, not from the sun, it’s emitted from animals instead. It’s a way of communicating, of catching prey, scaring off predators, finding mates, camouflage… You name it and it works like that! We see it in terrestrial animals, but way more frequently in marine life. Which makes sense, considering the depths many marine animals live in. This light is one of the few colors you will see down there.

Color as a threat

Blue poison dart frog.
Photo by Zachary Spears on Unsplash

Ever seen the peacock butterfly? It’s a bright red butterfly with a mix of blue, yellow, and black spots on its wings. When they’re exposing themselves or are approached by a predator, they flap open their wings, showing their brightly colored ‘eyes’ telling the predator ‘I see you!’. It may scare the predator off, or, with a bit of luck, at least discourage it cause it thinks it’s seen.

Heard of the poison dart frog? Yea, it’s bright yellow or blue and black, It’s screaming: ‘I am poisonous!’ or the coral snake with its red, yellow and black? Same story.
What these last two are displaying is Aposematism. It’s basically a way to advertise that they’re not worth attacking because they’re poisonous. Many animals mimic these colors, even when they’re not poisonous themselves because it’s such an effective survival strategy.

Colors and reproduction

Iridescence on a Monarch butterfly wing, can you see the greens and purples?
Photo by Jeremy Zero on Unsplash

Color is key when it comes to the reproduction of many animals. We see it in birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians… They all look for the brightest colored mate, usually males, to create offspring. Some animals will go one step further and use iridescent colors instead, It’s risky in the animal world to be brightly colored, because you will be an easy target to predators. This is likely the reason why females are less bright colored than males. Color, among other features stands for vitality, and females are very picky.

Handy colorful tools

Oke, in truth, color is a tool in and onto itself. But some of those can’t really be put into a category. There are so many of them that at some point I will cover them in another article, but it’s good to be aware of at least some of these features as they’re important to the survival of the species. So I’ll be mentioning a few in an effort to make you aware of what to look for when making a new design!

White fur under the eyes

The white spots under the eye of for example (big) cats, as mentioned before, helps them to reflect the little light there is into their eyes, so they can easily spot their prey, even when there is no moon. You can best see this in tigers, but lions, cheetahs, panthers and more animals have them. Even our beloved house cats can have them, depending on their coat color.

From left to right: Photo by Mohamed Elsayed on Unsplash, Photo by Milo Weiler on Unsplash, Photo by Borna Bevanda on Unsplash


Counter-shading is another feature you see in many animal species. It causes either the underside of the body of an animal, the part that’s facing away from the sun, to be a lot lighter than the rest of the animal (usually cream or white) or the upper-side of the body facing the sun to be significantly darker than the normal color. In some cases even both. This could be dark brown or (close to) black. In both cases, it confuses predators and prey as to what part of the animal is the top and what is the bottom – or even if there is an animal at all.

From left to right: Photo by Paul Carroll on Unsplash, Photo by Briana Wallace on Unsplash, Photo by: By Joe D

Colors and food

This one must be obvious. When you are an animal that eats fruits: You might want to be able to see which fruit is ripe and which is not. Not only because the ripe one is more tasty, but especially because fruit that isn’t ripe usually can’t be digested that well. In some cases they’re even poisonous. Not to mention that, in the animal world, finding food is already quite energy-demanding. You want to make sure that what you aim for, actually is worth the hassle.

Colors and camouflage

We mentioned counter-shading before. It’s a not that obvious way of camouflage to us humans. This is because we’re very good at seeing different colors and we also see this counter-shading around us all the time. In horses, our cats, dogs, on tv…. Instead, contrasts like stripes and spots are way more striking to us. This too is a form of camouflage. These patterns break up large evenly-colored surfaces. Something you won’t regularly see in a forest for example, or any other area with a lot of plant-life.

Both predators and prey sport camouflage, all in an effort to not be seen. But there are many animals out there that don’t have camouflage? Why is that? Well, good question. It seems like they simply didn’t get the kind of mutation required to create stripes, sports, counter-shading or any other kind of camouflage. But it’s not the only way to survive out in the wild. Look at lions: They still blend in very well despite the absence of additional camouflage, but they seem to make up for that by hunting in groups, and being very effective at it.

Animals on a diet

Animals change color overtime, even if they are genetically seen a specific color, they can at some point become another color. This could be due to sunfading (you see that a lot in black horses, cats, and dogs who seemingly turn brown overtime when exposed to sunlight) but food is factor too, and in some species, like the flamingo, their diet can really change them. When they are healthy and feed well they turn yea, you guessed it: Pink! When they’re sick however, or they’re brooding of have young, they turn near-white because of a lack of nutrients, or food altogether. Flamingo’s get their colors by eating tiny shrimps.

Natural selection

Natural selection is the elimination of anything that doesn’t fit in. We also call it ‘survival of the fittest’. This can mean that an animal that’s weak will be killed by a predator, rendering it unable to have more, probably weaker offspring. Deformed young will die or be killed soon enough as well, this makes them unable to have offspring of themselves to begin with.

An equine example

Ever wondered why white horses are a rarity in an area where predators are around? It’s because they stand out too much, they’re an easy target. They do well in the pasture though because people love white horses. But in truth, the gene causing this greying out (called ‘Grey’) is a mutation that doesn’t only causes these horses to become easy targets in the wild, but many of these horses get skin melanoma’s too, a type of cancer. Not because of excess exposure to sunlight, but simply because they grey-gene also triggers a gene causing these melanoma’s. People treat their horses against it all the time, but in the wild these melanoma’s will at some point become infected or the animal will be covered in them at some point, making them easy prey as well.
Not all white horses get melanoma’s, but it’s very common.

This is just one of many examples of natural selection. Selection can be caused by health, colors, body parts, behavior… Any change can be either good or bad. Natural selection will decide which of the two it will be.

From left to right: A graying horse. Started out black and is slowly turning (near) all white. The horse to the middle and front is most likely a tobiano horse, it definitely is born mostly white. Just like the horse to the right which is called a tovero (which only means it has more than one white-gene, in this case probably tobiano + splashed white), it’s very unlikely they would have survived in the wild if they were born in predator territory.
Left to right: Photo by Oscar Nilsson on Unsplash Photo by Fabian Burghardt on Unsplash Photo by: SkippyTheWonder

Humanity and color-use

For humans color is a way to communicate as well. But we’re quite complex beings with many different colors, so colors mean different things in that manner as well. It’s a good thing to keep in mind what colors mean to specific groups of people and what you try to communicate. Most of the time the colors we pick for our designs are aesthetic ones. It looks pretty, or it works well with the background, or the environment, or you pick the colors from animals you are inspired by.

This particular article isn’t meant to discuss this topic, I will do so in another article. But if you want to go a step farther anyhow, the following list may be of use to you. It encompasses the western culture (one of the biggest) and China, where color is incredibly important and has been well-described. Note that specific color combinations of colors or even objects with specific colors may communicate something specific as well.

ColorsMeaning in Western culturesMeaning in China
BlackDeath, despair, morbidity, evil, sin, negation, respect, formalImmortality, power, stability, knowledge, authority
WhitePerfection, purity, fertility, gratitude, joyDeath, purity, holiness, innocence, mourning, balance (with black, jin/jang)
RedLove, excitement, passion, dangerHappiness, good fortune, luck, prosperity
YellowGentleness, spontaneity, greed, duplicity, cowardice, hateRoyalty, prosperity, power, luck
BlueCalm, melancholy, trust, security, authorityCalm, healing, spring, optimism, growth
GreenNature, spring, good health, sometimes sicknessHarmony, growth, regeneration, new beginnings, infidelity
PurpleMagic, mystery, royalty, religious faith, power, holyProfundity, secrecy, luxury, luck, happiness, devinity, immortality
OrangeFrivolity, amusement, autumn, harvestFortune, abundance, harvest, happiness, wealth, celebrations
GoldWealth, excess, grandeur, prosperity, glamour, wisdom, powerHappiness, good fortune, luck, prosperity
SilverStylish, moneyPurity, wealth

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