Dr Troscianko filmed most of the footage in the film below in Zambia and South Africa

Insights into predator vision revealed in ambitious field project

The question of how animals see, or what the world looks like through their eyes, has vexed and fascinated biologists for centuries. 

Now, BBSRC-funded scientists at the Universities of Exeter and Cambridge are attempting to answer some of the fundamental questions about camouflage by understanding how different visual systems see the world.

The researchers have travelled across Africa and taken over 14,000 images and hours of video footage to catalogue what predators are able to see the hidden eggs of different ground-nesting birds. Back in the lab, they then use specially customised software to recreate the visual world of the predators, analysing what makes objects blend in or stand out from their backgrounds to predator visual systems based on real field data.

They have taken the analysis one step further by recruiting another predator: humans. By playing the ‘citizen science’ game Egglab, people can take their place in the evolutionary tree and spot eggs in images derived from the research. The eggs even ‘evolve’ as the game progresses, yielding yet more data on how types of camouflage evolve in different habitats.

Dr Jolyon Troscianko from the University of Exeter’s Sensory Ecology and Evolution group says Project Nightjar came about because of theories about how camouflage works to evade different visual systems hadn’t been tested in the wild. “It’s very difficult to find a study system where you can link predation with the quality of an animal’s camouflage,” he says. Dr Troscianko, based on the Penryn Campus, filmed most of the footage in the film below in Zambia and South Africa. 

Along with co-principal investigators Dr Martin Stevens, also of the University of Exeter's Centre for Ecology and Conservation, and Dr Claire Spottiswoode from the University of Cambridge, the team developed a study system using two classes of ground-nesting birds.

So far, the researchers have found that colour and contrast are often linked, and both are important. They are still learning a lot from the Egglab game about how camouflage is optimised and works in different habitats, and how the behaviour of an animal and background specialisation can affect this.

Dr Stevens says the citizen science games and rigorous fieldwork are complimentary. “The fieldwork looks at how camouflage of real animals in the wild affects how likely they are to be eaten by a range of predators, and how camouflage is influenced by behaviour and nesting strategies of the birds. The egg game looks at how camouflage evolved against different habitats under controlled conditions.”

Watch the video below to learn more about the secrets of camouflage and the fascinating field work being carried out.

Date: 6 August 2014

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