Disruptive coloration and background pattern matching


Effective camouflage renders a target indistinguishable from irrelevant background objects. Two interrelated but logically distinct mechanisms for this are background pattern matching (crypsis1,2) and disruptive coloration: in the former, the animal's colours are a random sample of the background1,2; in the latter, bold contrasting colours on the animal's periphery break up its outline. The latter has long been proposed as an explanation for some apparently conspicuous coloration in animals3,4, and is standard textbook material. Surprisingly, only one quantitative test5 of the theory exists, and one experimental test of its effectiveness against non-human predators6. Here we test two key predictions: that patterns on the body's outline should be particularly effective in promoting concealment and that highly contrasting colours should enhance this disruptive effect. Artificial moth-like targets were exposed to bird predation in the field, with the experimental colour patterns on the ‘wings’ and a dead mealworm as the edible ‘body’. Survival analysis supported the predictions, indicating that disruptive coloration is an effective means of camouflage, above and beyond background pattern matching.

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Figure 1: Patterns placed on the body's outline enhance survival.
Figure 2: High-contrast disruptive patterns enhance survival.


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We thank J. Endler for suggestions. The research was supported by a BBSRC grant to I.C.C., T.S.T. and J. C. Partridge.Authors' contributions I.C.C. designed the experiments and stimuli; M.S., J.S., T.M. and I.C.C. performed the experiments; A.P. wrote the programs for colour analysis and camera calibration; T.S.T. advised on design and colour modelling.

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Correspondence to Innes C. Cuthill.

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Cuthill, I., Stevens, M., Sheppard, J. et al. Disruptive coloration and background pattern matching. Nature 434, 72–74 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature03312

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