Nature is full of camouflage artists and insects certainly are masters of disguise. Some look like the dead leaves or branches they perch on, while others mimic the flowers or lichen where they live. This ability to blend into their environment obviously allows them to survive.

A team of researchers led by Bo Wang, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Nanjing, found ancient insects that have been cleverly disguising themselves for more than 100 million years. But they didn't just look like their surroundings. They actually covered themselves with flecks of dirt, leaves, wood and even the exoskeletons of other insects in order to hide from their predators and avoid being spotted by their prey.

This "self-decoration," however, didn't save the insects from one certain fate. They were encased in sticky amber, which preserved them in their disguises.

Wang and his team studied more than 300,000 amber specimens from around the world, and found 39 insects which they describe in a paper published in the journal Science Advances. Their research showed that the camouflaging behavior occurred in three groups of insects: chrysopidae (green lacewings), myrmeleontoid (split-footed lacewings and owlflies), and reduviidae (assassin bugs).

As Smithsonian points out, camouflaging like this is an intricate process:

Covering yourself with stuff you find on the ground is a more complex behavior than it might at first appear. (The same goes for the behavior of other debris-camouflagers like crabs, spiders and snails.) First, it requires the camouflagers to actively recognize which natural materials will enable them to effectively hide themselves. Then, they need to collect those materials and utilize them to create a disguise that perfectly matches their environment.

chrysopoid larva with dorsal basket The chrysopoid larva with has a 'dorsal basket' which made it easier to carry its debris disguise. (Photo: Wang et al.)

Some of the insects the researchers found look nothing like those that exist today. They have bristles and filaments and even a "dorsal basket" to make them more adapted to hold their debris disguise.

"These ancient fossils are quite remarkable," George Poinar, an entomologist at Oregon State University, who was not part of this study, told the Christian Science Monitor.

"It is baffling to think that these larvae actually had the ability to carry out this behavior. Certainly this behavior requires knowledge and actions that are beyond what we may consider an instinctive response."

Mary Jo DiLonardo covers a wide range of topics focused on nature, health, science and anything that helps make the world a better place.

Ancient insects camouflaged themselves in dirt and dead bugs
Despite covering themselves in clever camouflage, ancient insects met their fate encased in amber.