Joining in with this online egg hunt will help increase our knowledge of camouflage

Anyone want to go on an egg hunt?

This Easter you can challenge your friends to a calorie free Easter egg hunt and help scientists understand camouflage and its evolution.

An egg-citing new game allows you to play the part of a ‘predator’ hunting down birds eggs against different backgrounds.

The game from University of Exeter researcher Dr Martin Stevens and his research group was developed with game designer Dave Griffiths of FoAM Kernow based in Falmouth.

Biosciences and Centre of Ecology and Conservation Research Fellow Dr Stevens said: “One of the main aims of our research group is to study camouflage and predator vision. This game will help us understand camouflage and its evolution through citizen science.

"This is a genuine scientific experiment that anyone around the world can take part in with a computer, smartphone, or tablet.”

The game has been specially designed so the eggs become more sophisticated and harder to spot as more people take part in the experiment.

Dr Stevens explained: “After all the eggs have been tested for one generation they are ranked by how hard they were to find. The game continues with the top 50 per cent of the most effectively camouflaged eggs being carried forward alongside ‘mutated’ versions with different colours and patterns.

"These are then presented to players and the game continues. Over time the eggs evolve different camouflage patterns and should become more effectively hidden.”

The game is available on your desktop browser. Another version which allows you to hide eggs against a background and challenge your friends to an Easer egg hunt is also available to share on Facebook.

The eggs available for this game will also evolve as more people play the main game, making the challenges harder.

The games not only allow people to experience and understand some of the basic concepts of evolution and survival of the fittest, but you can also track the evolution of the eggs, view family trees for the most successful ones, see graphs showing the changes in average survival time for eggs of each species over the game, and see a construction kit showing how the eggs are made.

The aim of the game is to test how well different egg colours and patterns are camouflaged against the different habitat types, and for the researchers to see what type of camouflage evolve in these different habitats.

This citizen science research method was chosen because it allows the academics to study the evolution of camouflage types under controlled conditions with very large numbers of participants, allowing ambitious tests of camouflage evolution on a large scale.

The game uses a computer algorithm whereby eggs have a ‘genotype’ that encodes features about their colour and pattern. As more people play the game the eggs incur mutations which lead to changes in their appearance. If this improves their camouflage the eggs are likely to be harder to find and will spread through the ‘population’.

Martin explained: “On the more diverse and complex leaf litter background, we might expect disruptive coloration to evolve, which breaks up the body outline and shape. On the more uniform open ground, we would expect background matching camouflage to arise, where the eggs simply resemble the general colour and patterns of the substrate.

“In the fiery-necked and Mozambique nightjar games, where each species specialises on nesting on one background type, we would expect the camouflage to be well tuned to their respective environments.

"In contrast, the pennant-winged nightjar nests on a range of background types, and so in that game the eggs might represent a compromise in appearance, looking a bit like each background type but not perfectly camouflaged on either one.”

This work is part of a wider project investigating camouflage in ground nesting birds in Africa. The work is co-led by Dr Stevens and Dr Claire Spottiswoode of the University of Cambridge, along with Dr Jolyon Troscianko and Mr Jared Wilson-Aggarwal (both also of Exeter).

Two smaller scale games have already been released and have attracted more than 15,000 players. The results from these games are currently being analysed but are revealing how predators with different visual systems find camouflaged prey.

The YouTube video below also tells you more about their work with the British Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC):