Nature, as the great poet Tennyson reminded us, is “red in tooth and claw”. Animals face a constant battle to survive, and many species are under persistent risk from predators. One of the mechanisms animals use to avoid a bloody end is camouflage – blending in with the background – to avoid being eaten.
But what makes for good camouflage? How do factors such as colour and patterning work to fool the senses of wily attackers? At present, although we know a lot about the different types of camouflage that might exist, we know very little about the value of camouflage and how it works in the natural world.
This short video is a brief introduction to the ongoing work of Dr Martin Stevens at the University of Exeter, and Dr Claire Spottiswoode at the University of Cambridge, who are examining egg predation and camouflage in habitats in South Africa and Zambia. Their colleagues, Dr Jolyon Troscianko and Jared Wilson-Aggarwal, also at Exeter, have set up hidden cameras to record egg predation events in different bird species.
The project aims to increase our understanding of camouflage in the wild and its relationship with survival. To do this, the team study the camouflage of ground nesting birds, and their eggs and chicks in the natural environment. They are using specialist cameras to photograph the birds, and camera traps to identify their main predators and to monitor nest survival.
Back in the UK they then use the images to simulate the relevant predator visual systems, which often see the world very differently to us, including different colours. Using a range of image analysis techniques, the team are comparing the properties of the eggs, chicks and adults to the environment to study their camouflage and how it affected their risk of predation.
Avoiding your eggs being eaten is a matter of life and death to many animals, but the research also helps improve our fundamental understanding of vision and could have wide-ranging applications, from bioscience to security and defence. Animal camouflage has also influenced human behaviour and culture, including art, fashion and the military.
A full in-depth feature on the project will appear on the BBSRC website and YouTube channel when the fieldwork is completed in the coming months.
Dr Martin Stevens, Sensory Ecology & Evolution group
Project nightjar, University of Exeter