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  • Writer's pictureAsh, Lead Naturalist

Patterns in Nature!

Written By: Ashley Goldbeck


Have you ever taken a walk in the woods and had a plant or animal catch your eye and make you do a double take? What was it that made you take a second look? Was it its shape, color, coat, or its ability to blend in so well you barely noticed it?

I bet without even consciously knowing, you have been drawn to a plant or animal at some point in your life because of its distinct pattern. Patterns catch our eyes on a daily basis without us being aware of it because they are visually appealing to our eyes and brain. Patterns in nature are visible regularities of structure, shape, and form of plants and animals. Natural patterns include spider webs, trees, shells, leaves, spirals, scales, meanders, waves, spots, stripes, and many more! Do you have a favorite pattern? How would you explain it?

The How and Why of Patterns in Nature:

There are countless varieties of plants and animals on earth and each one of them is unique in its own way. Many use patterns in their everyday lives for several different reasons. Here are a few examples:


Camouflage, is a defense or tactic that organisms use to blend in with their surroundings. Background matching is perhaps the most common camouflage tactic. Some use it to hide from predators; others use it to sneak up on their prey. Often times camouflage is possible through a form of patterns displayed on an animal’s skin, coat, scales or feathers. For example, the feathers on an Eastern Screech Owl have a pattern that almost perfectly matches the bark of the tree they perch in while waiting to spot their next serving of food. Some Walking Leaf bugs, desperate to hide from predators mimic the patterns and chew marks of leaves and sway back and forth in the breeze to avoid becoming a bird’s next meal. And we all know chameleons can change the patterns of their skin to match the surroundings of their environment too.

Can you think of any other animals that use patterns for camouflage?


^ Fox Snake^ ^ Massasauga Rattlesnake^

Some animals use their patterns to trick you into thinking they are something they’re not. For example, the non-venomous Fox Snakes' spot pattern mimics the venemous Massasauga Rattlesnakes' pattern. The only difference (other than not having teeth like a rattlesnake) is the pattern stops before reaching the head of the fox snake, while it continues onto the head of the Massasauga rattlesnake. Fox snakes will also rattle their tails like a rattlesnake when they are feeling threatened even though they have no rattles on their tails. Nice try guys, but we are onto your tricks!

Do you know of any other tricksters?


Not all animals have sharp claws and teeth, or wings to fly away when they sense danger. These animals may use their patterns as a form of protection against predators and even us humans. The patterns on a Zebra’s fur can be a form of protection. When clustered together, it is nearly impossible to tell one zebra from another, making it difficult for predators such as lions to stalk an individual animal. Then there’s the Monarch Butterfly who uses its patterns and coloration to warn predator birds that it is toxic. Monarchs eat milkweed, which is poisonous to many birds making them vomit. Monarchs hold this poison in their bodies due to their constant diet of the milkweed plant. Their bright, colorful pattern warns predator birds that they aren’t worth dying over, ultimately protecting the short-lived monarch butterfly for another day.

Can you think of any other protection patterns?

Simple Existing Beauty:

One of the most familiar and beautiful examples of patterns in nature is the remarkable patterns we see in snowflakes.They all have the same basic layout of hexagonal balance but there is an unlimited variety of patterns in each individual snowflake. With patterns so complex and unique you would almost think they were engineered by artists yet the process of their formation is so simple. It is purely the freezing of water vapor out of humid air. So simple, yet such intricate results are formed from the process. Many different plants and trees have patterns in their leaves which are usually veins. These veins are not hiding or trying to trick anyone, they are simply transporting water and minerals. They can be very simple or very complex depending on the plant or tree. But when looked at closely they are no doubt stunning. Like a snowflake, they are a form of simple existing beauty.

Can you think of a unqiue pattern you enjoy on a favorite plant or animal?

Make it a Family Adventure!

Now that we have discussed some examples of patterns in nature along with the how and why of them, I encourage you to go out and look for some here at Willow River State Park, or even in your backyard! Lace up your hiking boots, grab some sketch paper and see just how many different patterns you can capture and recreate. You'll find that its quite fun and addicting to see how many you can find!

Materials Needed:

· Sketch paper and clipboard

· Pencil

· Some good hiking shoes

· Binoculars (optional)

· Magnifying glass (optional)

· Examples of patterns in nature

Here are some examples to get you started!

Have fun and be sure to share your favorite patterns with us. We love hearing from you!

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