Science Art: Roseate Spoonbill, study for Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, by Abbot Handerson Thayer

Scientific illustration of a roseate spoonbill at sunset, supposedly showing its ability to camouflage itself against a pink background.

Scientific illustration of a roseate spoonbill at sunset, supposedly showing its ability to camouflage itself against a pink background. Click to embiggen

As its Smithsonian Museum page explains, this painting is from a book that hoped to prove a slightly odd hypothesis: that even brightly colored animals would blend into their environment at key moments, giving them protection against predators they wouldn’t normally have. Abbott Handerson Thayer and his son Gerald published Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom in 1909, and attracted some high-profile criticism:

Thayer believed that the coloration of animals, no matter how eye-catching, was meant to disguise them in nature through what he called ​“countershading.” Even bright pink flamingoes would vanish against a similar colored sky at sunset or sunrise. No matter that at times their brilliant feathers were highly visible, their coloration would protect them from predators at crucial moments so that ​“the spectator seems to see right through the space occupied by an opaque animal.” Not all readers were convinced. The most passionate criticism came from Teddy Roosevelt, who was in Africa when the book came out. He protested upon his return that Thayer’s theory was ludicrous, arguing that on his trip he had spotted some of the animals Thayer mentioned from miles away.