Camouflage really does reduce the chances of being eaten

January 29, 2016, University of Exeter
A close-up of the nightjar. Credit: Jolyon Troscianko

A ground-breaking study has confirmed the long held assumption that camouflage protects animals from the clutches of predators, and offers insights into the most important aspects of camouflage.

The research, by scientists from the Universities of Exeter and Cambridge, investigated the camouflage of ground-nesting birds in Zambia, using sophisticated digital imaging to demonstrate how they would appear from the perspective of a predator.

The team found that animals or eggs that matched the pattern or contrast of the surrounding landscape were less likely to be eaten by their .

The study is published in leading journal Scientific Reports on Friday, January 29 2016.

Dr Jolyon Troscianko, lead author of the paper from the University of Exeter's Centre for Ecology and Conservation department said: "We know that animal camouflage has evolved over millions of years to help prey evade being seen by predators - it is a classic example of natural selection.

"Yet although it may seem obvious that blending into your background makes you less likely to be seen, it is surprisingly difficult to test this in a natural setting.

"This is partly because very well camouflaged animals are of course difficult to find in the wild, and also because they tend to keep moving around, meaning the match between their own appearance and their background is constantly changing. In addition we had determine which predators were eating the nests so that we could take into account their different visual systems."

Bronze-wing courser eggs. Credit: Claire Spottiswoode

Martin Stevens from Exeter University who, along with Claire Spottiswoode from the University of Cambridge, co-led the project said: "Despite such a long history of research, ours is the first study to directly show how the degree of camouflage an individual has, to the eyes of its predators, directly affects the likelihood of it being seen and eaten in the wild."

The team studied a variety of ground-nesting birds, whose eggs would stay in a fixed location throughout the month-long period needed for incubation. This allowed the scientists to accurately compare both the adult birds, and their eggs, to their chosen backgrounds, as well as monitor which nests had been found by predators such as banded mongooses, birds, and vervet monkeys—and even in one case hungry children.

The team also used specially-calibrated digital cameras and computer models of animal vision to view the nests as the predators might see them, from the sophisticated colour vision of birds - that can see ultraviolet wavelengths - to the relatively poor colour vision of mongooses that only see blues and yellows.

Video of the predators caught on camera traps. Credit: Dr. Jolyon Troscianko

The research showed that in species that would flee the nest as predators approached, such as plovers and coursers, the eggs were more likely to survive to hatching if they matched the background more closely when exposed to view by their fleeing parent.

In nightjars, however, which conceal their eggs by remaining motionless over them when approached, it was the appearance of the adults that was most important for their survival: nightjars that matched the background pattern were more likely to save their eggs from being eaten.

"The astounding of plover and nightjar plumage really underlines the skill of the fantastic team of local assistants who helped us with our research in Zambia by finding the hundreds of nests we studied," added Claire Spottiswoode.

Explore further: Secrets of animal camouflage: Video reveals how predator vision works

More information: Camouflage predicts survival in ground-nesting birds, Scientific Reports, 2016.

Related Stories

Egg camouflage research animation

June 11, 2014

Did you ever look at the marks and speckles on an egg and wonder what they are for? Pretty as they can be, they are not merely ornamental but have evolved to hide the egg from hungry predators.

Who's eating my eggs

October 23, 2013

Nature, as the great poet Tennyson reminded us, is a violent place, or "red in tooth and claw", as he put it. One of the mechanisms animals use to avoid a bloody end is camouflage – blending in with the background – to ...

Birds colour-match their interior designs

October 3, 2014

Researchers at the University of St Andrews have produced the first experimental evidence that birds actively select nest-building materials that camouflage their nests: published today in influential ornithological journal ...

Spotted eggshells may indicate sickly mothers in great tits

January 20, 2016

The many colors and patterns of bird eggs can provide camouflage and help parents tell their own eggs apart from those of invaders, but a forthcoming study in The Auk: Ornithological Advances suggests another function for ...

Recommended for you

Cells lacking nuclei struggle to move in 3-D environments

January 20, 2018

University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center researchers have revealed new details of how the physical properties of the nucleus influence how cells can move around different environments - such as ...

Microbial communities demonstrate high turnover

January 19, 2018

When Mark Twain famously said "If you don't like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes," he probably didn't anticipate MIT researchers would apply his remark to their microbial research. But a new study does ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3.5 / 5 (4) Jan 29, 2016
A ground-breaking study has confirmed the long held assumption that camouflage protects animals from the clutches of predators, and offers insights into the most important aspects of camouflage.
Next I expect to read a ground-breaking study that confirms the long held assumption that walking gets you to places.
Jan 29, 2016
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

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.