Quail really know their camouflage

January 17, 2013
When it comes to camouflage, ground-nesting Japanese quail are experts. That’s based on new evidence published online on Jan. 17 in Current Biology that mother quail "know" the patterning of their own eggs and choose laying spots to hide them best. Credit: Cedric Zimmer

When it comes to camouflage, ground-nesting Japanese quail are experts. That's based on new evidence published online on January 17 in Current Biology that mother quail "know" the patterning of their own eggs and choose laying spots to hide them best.

"Not only are the eggs camouflaged, but the birds choose to lay their eggs on a that maximizes camouflage," said P. George Lovell of Abertay University and the University of St Andrews. "Furthermore, the maximization seems specific to individual birds."

Karen Spencer, also of University of St Andrews and a co-author, had earlier noticed that female quail lay eggs that vary a lot in appearance, and that those differences are repeatable. Some birds consistently lay eggs covered in dark spots; others have many fewer spots or, in some cases, almost none at all.

When it comes to camouflage, ground-nesting Japanese quail are experts. That’s based on new evidence published online on Jan. 17 in Current Biology that mother quail “know” the patterning of their own eggs and choose laying spots to hide them best. Credit: Lovell et al., Current Biology

That pattern led the researchers to an intriguing idea: that birds might make optimal egg-laying choices based on the special characteristics of their own eggs. To find out, they gave female quail in the lab a choice between four different backgrounds on which to lay their eggs.

Those choice experiments revealed that most quail mothers lay their eggs on background colors to match the spots on their eggs. That's an effective strategy known as disruptive coloration, in which contrasting patterns on surfaces make the outline of an object harder to detect. Birds laying eggs with little patterning instead choose lighter surfaces to match the predominant background color of their eggs.

The findings suggest that in the wild lower the chance that their eggs will be found and eaten by through careful decision-making, the researchers say.

When it comes to camouflage, ground-nesting Japanese quail are experts. That’s based on new evidence published online on January 17 in Current Biology that mother quail “know” the patterning of their own eggs and choose laying spots to hide them best. Credit: Lovell et al., Current Biology

"Animals make choices based upon their knowledge of the environment and their own phenotype to maximize their ability to reproduce and survive," Lovell said. "In this specific case, birds know what their look like and can make laying choices that will minimize predation."

Explore further: Parasite arms race spurs color change in bird eggs

More information: Current Biology, Lovell et al.: "Individual quail select egg-laying substrate providing optimal camouflage for their egg phenotype." dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2012.12.031

Related Stories

Parasite arms race spurs color change in bird eggs

April 16, 2012

The eggs laid by two African bird species have evolved different color patterns over a period of just 40 years, according to new research published in The American Naturalist. The quick change appears to be driven by an unwanted ...

Climate change may alter amphibian evolution

October 25, 2012

Most of the more than 6,000 species of frogs in the world lay their eggs in water. But many tropical frogs lay their eggs out of water. This behavior protects the eggs from aquatic predators, such as fish and tadpoles, but ...

Cuckoo chicks in Zebra finches

April 22, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Some female zebra finches foist a part of their eggs on their neighbours. Scientists of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen discovered that in every fifth nest there is one egg that is not ...

Recommended for you

Study identifies new malaria parasites in wild bonobos

November 21, 2017

Malaria parasites, although widespread among wild chimpanzees and gorillas, have not been detected in bonobos, a chimp cousin. Reasoning that previous studies may have missed infected bonobo populations, a team led by Beatrice ...

The strange case of the scuba-diving fly

November 20, 2017

More than a century ago, American writer Mark Twain observed a curious phenomenon at Mono Lake, just to the east of Yosemite National Park: enormous numbers of small flies would crawl underwater to forage and lay eggs, but ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.