Colours of Joy: Nature knows how to look its best at all times

Psychedelic colours in nature nearly always look stunning on the creatures that sport them.

Written by Ranjit Lal | New Delhi | Published:March 29, 2015 1:00 am
A female Eclectus Parrot found in the Solomon Islands, New Guinea A female Eclectus Parrot found in the Solomon Islands, New Guinea

Down In Jungleland

Knockout, psychedelic colours in nature serve three main purposes: they’re used as a means of recognition between species to attract mates and to warn off predators. Whatever the reason, they nearly always look stunning on the creatures that sport them. The rainbow bunting and Gouldian finch, for example, wear every shade of the Vibgyor imaginable at the same time, and you can only go wow! Sweet-talk your spouse or partner into wearing something similar — hasn’t the fashion industry tried its damnedest hard to encourage that — and everyone will point and laugh and that’ll be the end of a lovely relationship. These days, you may even get arrested for upsetting sensitive sentiments. Yet, nature pulls it off, every bizarre and outrageous time. Whether it’s tropical birds or fish — the mantis shrimp is one kaleidoscopic (and very deadly) dude and the octopus can change its outfit to merge with the background with a speed and accuracy that would be the envy of any politician — they stun and dazzle every time.

It’s certainly not as if you need to sport every colour in the spectrum to look awesome. The bay-backed shrike, for instance, in maroon, silver-grey, snow-white and black is one smart dude as is the magpie robin in its shiny tuxedo. Nature has a talent to mix and match colours and patterns in a way that we can’t quite pull off, no matter how hard we try.

So it begs the question: do animals, birds and insects know that they look great? We think they do, but what about them? Is the poor drab peahen, hardwired and programmed to go with the dude with the most flamboyant train, or does she do a double take and go all weak in the knees (ugly as they are), when she sees him? (She does, of course, presume indifference). Biologists and scientists will stiffen and icily say, “Nonsense, they can’t recognize or see beauty the same way as we do.” As for insects and fish, well, it does get harder to believe they can actually appreciate beauty judging by their behaviour. If it’s bigger, bolder, more dazzling, then its genes are good, so go with it, that’s all they know.

Of course, many of them don’t look great all the time. It’s when spring comes around that they don their best. Most of our migratory ducks and waders, for instance, wear comparatively drab winter outfits while visiting us. Now, as they prepare to leave, the drakes will begin donning the resplendent plumage that gets the duckies all excited and the ruff, so nondescript all winter, will begin to resemble a nobleman from the court of Louis the XIV.

Even the silent plant kingdom seems to know a thing or two about beauty. Flowers and orchids apart, there’s nothing quite like the fresh young greens of new leaves — some turning so from astonishing bronzes and coppers. And even when they die, the flaming blazes of autumn take our breath away.

And really, it seems to be all for show. What’s on the outside must look good, what’s inside, well it doesn’t matter. No internal organ of an animal or insect can be thought of as aesthetic, no matter how much of an engineering marvel it is. Look at brains or skulls or intestines; amazing, but not pretty. In spite of our astonishing brainpower, we are still dissatisfied with the way we look, no matter what colour. So we tattoo ourselves, and slap on the war-paint. And every spring here in India, try to look like the rainbow bunting by playing Holi. And end up looking a complete fright.

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher

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