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Researchers Confirm Camouflage Plays Key Role In Animal Survival [VIDEO]

Jan 29, 2016 06:47 PM EST
Fiery-Necked Nightjar
Fiery-necked nightjar camouflages to its surroundings and remains motionless over eggs to protect them when predators are near.
(Photo : Jolyon Troscianko)

It seems obvious that being able to blend into one's surroundings would give prey the upper hand against predators. However, this long-held assumption was recently confirmed in a new study, conducted by researchers from the Universities of Exeter and Cambridge. Their findings ultimately shed light on some of the most important aspects of camouflage.  

"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," Dr. Jolyon Troscianko, lead author of the paper from the University of Exeter's Centre for Ecology and Conservation department, explained in a news release. "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."

In the latest study, researchers focused on the camouflage abilities of several ground-nesting birds in Zambia. Using sophisticated digital cameras and computer models, researchers were able to demonstrate how the birds appeared from a perspective predator's point of view. For instance, they were able to see the nests from the sophisticated view point of birds, which can see ultraviolet wavelengths, and from the relatively poor viewpoint of mongooses, which can only see blues and yellows.

Overall, researchers found that animals and eggs disguised to match the pattern of the surrounding landscape were less likely to be eaten by their natural predators. (Scroll to read more...)

Bronze-Wing Courser Eggs
(Photo : Claire Spottiswoode)
Bronze-wing courser eggs.

"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," Dr. Troscianko added in the university' release.

Researchers were also able to determine which animals were preying on the birds' nests, which allowed them to take into consideration the difference visual systems from which the nest would be seen.

"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," co-lead authors Martin Stevens of Exeter University and Claire Spottiswoode of the University of Cambridge, said.

A variety of ground-nesting birds, whose eggs would stay in a fixed location throughout the month-long period needed for incubation, where monitored over the course of the study. Researchers then compared both the adult birds and their eggs to their chosen backgrounds. The birds' top predators include the banded mongooses, larger birds, and vervet monkeys. 

Ultimately, researchers found eggs belonging to species that tended to flee their nest as predators approached, such as plovers and coursers, were more likely to survive to hatching if they matched the background more closely when exposed. 

Nightjars, however, conceal their eggs by remaining motionless over them as predators get close. Therefore, it was the appearance of the adults that was most important in saving their offspring from being eaten. 

Their study was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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