Enviro Perspectives on Animal Vision with Dave Rushworth

Animal Eyesight

On the subject of vision - I mentioned that, with sufficient light, mammals, with a few exceptions, have monochrome vision - (shades of black and white) - and egg-laying animals (birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects) see colour - although often different parts of the spectrum to what we see. With some exceptions (primates, human beings and some others), this is a well-tested assumption.
Due to variations in pixel density, mammals generally perceive objects less clearly than birds and ourselves but movement is magnified. The compound eyes of insects have many variations!

Signal Markings

Dark and light markings make the most obvious alarm and warning signals. Humans use black, white and yellow for road markings and signs. Birds, reptiles and insects use bright colours among each other but black and white concerning mammals.

Most of the big cats have black and/or white markings on the back of their ears, the tips of their tails, their legs and feet. Dogs (jackal, wild dogs etc) have white or black tipped tails; so do many of the antelope and other mammals with black or white facial and body markings.

Animals that see colour use black and white signals to mammals. The black open mouth warning of black mambas and egg-eating snakes; the black and white neck markings on certain cobras and the rinkhals, when they raise their bodies; the black crown of the crowned plover when the head is lowered which looks like the open mouth of a snake or some other animal and the white flashes on the open wings of many birds. The examples are numerous.


Any object held in the light will have a shadow on one side and highlights on the other. Animal colouring or shading is to compensate for this in an attempt to make the animal less visible to other mammals. Hence the darker colours on top and light or white underneath in the normally shaded parts. We can try and imagine what mammals see if we look at black and white pictures.

Learned And Instinctive Behaviour

While wild mammals normally behave according to natural instinct, many of our domestic mammals have been conditioned with a lot of learned behaviour from their association with people. Although domestic animals have retained a lot of deep rooted instincts, while some 'wild' animals, through frequent interaction with humanity, have developed certain learned behaviour, one cannot always interpret wild animal behaviour in terms of domestic animals.

Lions and other predators may learn to use vehicles as cover when hunting or approach vehicles for food scraps. Monkeys and baboons are even faster learners. Birds and other creatures are all capable of learned behaviour which is an important part of being able to adapt to changing situations. In 'wild' situations the instinctive behaviour of animals is normally more predictable.


When interpreting animal behaviour try and put yourself in their situation. If you were sitting somewhere and suddenly heard a noise you would first look and identify the source. If it looked dangerous your instinct would be to move away from the danger. If you were with a small child or something that could not move away, you would start warning whatever threatened you.

As it came closer your warning would increase in intensity until finally you would attack the intruder. Form a picture in your mind of ripples in a pond around you. The furthest ripple would be your ESCAPE circle.

Inside that would be your WARNING area up to the point of your ATTACK circle. All animals have the same although the distances change depending on psychological and physical circumstances.

Animals will normally respect your right of occupation. They also expect you to respect their rights and heed their warning signs. Warnings not to approach may be given through sound or visual posture, often accompanied by colour warnings. It is easier to understand the examples of familiar warnings of domestic animals. Like your cat - when lions or leopards flatten their ears, they are showing you warning spots (black or white) on the back of their ears.

Domestic cats lash their tails before pouncing on something. Similarly, lions lash their tails indicating, with the black tip, an imminent attack. Growls are universally understood. The tail tips are signal spots rather than warning spots. One of the most noticeable parts of a dominant leopard is the white tip of its tail moving through the vegetation. If it does not want to be spotted for some reason it will lower the tail and hide the white tip.


Colour is very often used in the initial warning. For example, a honey badger will stand with front legs stretched and head held high showing you the black chest as a warning. Warnings are usually intensified by the use of increasing sound. A porcupine will first rely on its black and white colouring to be seen. It will then raise its quills, making it bigger.

It will then stamp its feet and make a puffing noise. It will then rattle its tail quills and get ready for a reverse attack. A camouflaged cobra or mamba will raise its body as a first warning to show its light belly with added black markings in the cobra. If that doesn't work it will enlarge the warning area by spreading a hood, finally the mamba will open its black mouth wide and a cobra may spit or hiss before attempting to bite an oncoming intruder.

One would have to be very foolish not to heed such obvious warnings. Interestingly, cobras which are often nocturnal will make a loud, deep hiss as a warning at night if they sense that you can't see them. It pays you to listen well when moving at night. Puff adders give a deep hiss when alarmed - given the chance! A mamba will use its black mouth to warn other large mammals. A nesting and camouflaged plover will use its white wing patches to warn an elephant to go round it. Insects will flash their wings to alarm and warn off predators.

An elephant will use its outstretched ears to make it look bigger to frighten you off; or may approach slowly with ears out and trunk up to try and hear or smell what you are while trying to identify you with its poor eyesight. Let it know what you are with a throat rumble or some other gentle sound - NOT banging on the car door!

You would wave your arms at a chicken to chase it away but you would bunch up with arms in and make yourself look small if you wanted to catch it. The same with elephant, they will curl up their trunks and approach with ears folded if they mean business! The examples are, again, numerous.


Try to remember that animals - given a chance - will warn you by posture, sound or colour, or a combination of these, if they don't want you to approach. It is up to you to learn the various warnings. Be alert and move quietly in reaction to the messages given. If you are driving try not to change your rhythm too suddenly. Sudden silence is used by many species as an alarm signal.

Remember that animals don't want to attack you as it is not a good survival tactic, they would rather you listened to them and respected their rights. They expect you to give gentle warning signs as well - smell, sound etc - to give them an indication of your whereabouts so they can avoid you. Leave the right signs around your campsite and you will be safe.

Kruger Park Reference Guide

This Reference Guide of Kruger Parks flora and fauna details descriptions, distribution and habitats of all the various species occurring in...more
Kruger National Park - South African Safari