The psychology of animal camouflage

DisruptiveColourationBackground: There are a number of ways in which animals and plants attempt to defend themselves from predators. Sometimes they look or sound like something that they are not, such as another animal or plant that is venomous, in a process known as “mimicry”. Other times, rather than attempting to deceive a predator after being seen, the animal or plant might try to hide altogether. This second defensive strategy, known as “camouflage”, can take a number of forms. One of the most interesting forms of camouflage is “disruptive colouration” which involves breaking up the edge of an animal to make it harder to detect.

What we did: Rich Webster is a PhD student at Carleton University who applied a novel approach to the question of how disruptive colouration helps to hide animals. He used eye-tracking technology with humans as predators searching for digital moths on pictures of trees. With this approach he was able to see where people were looking and how long it really took them to find the “moth”. Importantly, he could also tell how many times they looked at the moth without actually seeing it. We were able to show that the length of time taken to find a target and the number of times that the target was missed were both significantly higher when the moth had a larger number of patches on the edge of its wings.

Importance: Mottled colouration has been observed in many species, but until now we have not had a clear description of the mechanism by which this form of defensive colouration acts. Our results provide that first insight into how and why predators sometimes fail to find prey which are camouflaged in this way.

This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored.  This paper, entitled “Disruptive camouflage impairs object recognition”, was published in the journal Biology Letters in 2013. You can find this paper at the publisher or archived at Figshare.

Image credit: All images are by Rich Webster, and used with permission.

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