Introducing patterns

One of the things in nature which is worth taking a really close look at is pattern.  Spots, stripes and splotches decorate loads of living things; from beetles to reef fish, snakes to zebras, orchids to sunflower seeds.

Peacock pavo Natural History science sciart illustration by Lizzie Harper

Peacock Pavo pair with male tail on display

They have always amazed and delighted me, and I’ve recently looked a little further into them.

ladybug with outstretched wing diagram

Ladybird Coccinella septempunctata

What are patterns for?

Patterns serve lots of different functions in nature.  They can provide camouflage, which works for predators as well as for prey.  This is true for plants as well as animals (Plant Camouflague by Niu and Sun, 2018)

Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus natural history illustration by Lizzie Harper

Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus settled camoflauged on the ground

They can be vigorous warnings, advertising toxicity.  The Monarch butterfly is toxic thanks to the milkweed its caterpillars feed on, and its colouration ensures any predator foolish enough to try and eat it once would not repeat the experience!

Monarch Danaus plexippus butterfly natural history illustration by Lizzie Harper

Monarch Danaus plexippus butterfly

Patterns can be used to attract mates (just think of the shimmering tail of a peacock), to mimic poisonous animals, and to guide animals to food sources.  IN certain habitats, such as coral reefs, many of these tactics are used at the same time making for a panoply of patterns and colour.

Red sea coral reef scene showing patterned clown fish, star puffer fish, and squirrel fish

Pattern variety

There’s variety in the patterns, and plenty of overlap.  Lots of spots can merge together into a loose stripe, as with the toad below.

Yellow bellied toad natural history illustration by Lizzie Harper
Yellow bellied toad Bombina variegata

Stripes on plants can widen into blotches. In plants, spots and stripes can fall under the umbrella term of “variegation”, pale markings on leaves where there’s no green pigment.  Some animals and plants sport stripes and spots, and one flower is even decorated with chequer-board markings!

Garden yellow archangel flower paitning

Variegated Yellow Archangel Lamiatrum galeobdolon subsp argentum

Plants show a wide range of patterns on their leaves, stems, flowers, seeds, and fruit.  There’s always a reason behind the spots, stripes and splotches; not only how they come to be there, but why they exist and persist across the generations.

Pattern and latin names

Although many people freeze when shown a scientific or Latin name, they can be really helpful in giving clues about the organism you’re looking at.  When it comes to patterns, anything with “zonatus” or “versicolor” in its Latin name is likely to be striped.

natural history illustration of turkey tail fungi

Turkey tail fungus Trametes versicolor

Anything including the word “maculata” will be spotty, and a plant whose name includes “variegatum” will almost certainly be (you guessed it) variegated.

Lords and ladies Arum maculatum


So whether its spots or stripes, blotches or chequerboards, patterns are everywhere in the natural world.  Used for attraction, protection, hunting, warning…the purpose is endless.  And the result is a world full of stunning, patterned organisms.

butterfly, insect, lepidoptera, butterflies,
Painted lady Vanessa cardui

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