Disruptive coloration and background pattern matching

Abstract

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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

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

References

  1. 1

    Endler, J. A. Progressive background in moths, and a quantitative measure of crypsis. Biol. J. Linn. Soc. 22, 187–231 (1984)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Endler, J. A. An overview of the relationships between mimicry and crypsis. Biol. J. Linn. Soc. 16, 25–31 (1981)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Thayer, G. H. Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom; An Exposition of the Laws of Disguise through Color and Pattern; Being a Summary of Abbott H. Thayer's Discoveries (Macmillan, New York, 1909)

    Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Cott, H. B. Adaptive Coloration in Animals (Methuen, London, 1940)

    Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Merilaita, S. Crypsis through disruptive coloration in an isopod. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 265, 1059–1064 (1998)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Silberglied, R. E., Aiello, A. & Windsor, D. M. Disruptive coloration in butterflies - lack of support in Anartia fatima. Science 209, 617–619 (1980)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Behrens, R. R. False Colors: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage (Bobolink, Dysart, Iowa, 2002)

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Thayer, A. H. The law which underlies protective coloration. Auk 13, 124–129 (1896)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Endler, J. A. On the measurement and classification of colour in studies of animal colour patterns. Biol. J. Linn. Soc. 41, 315–352 (1990)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Endler, J. A. A predator's view of animal color patterns. Evol. Biol. 11, 319–364 (1978)

    Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Bennett, A. T. D., Cuthill, I. C. & Norris, K. J. Sexual selection and the mismeasure of color. Am. Nat. 144, 848–860 (1994)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Kiltie, R. A. Countershading: universally deceptive or deceptively universal? Trends Ecol. Evol. 3, 21–23 (1988)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Ruxton, G. D., Speed, M. P. & Kelly, D. J. What, if anything, is the adaptive function of countershading? Anim. Behav. 68, 445–451 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Waldbauer, G. P. & Sternburg, J. G. A pitfall in using painted insects in studies of protective coloration. Evolution 37, 1085–1086 (1983)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Merilaita, S., Tuomi, J. & Jormalainen, V. Optimization of cryptic coloration in heterogeneous habitats. Biol. J. Linn. Soc. 67, 151–161 (1999)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Maddocks, S. A., Church, S. C. & Cuthill, I. C. The effects of the light environment on prey choice by zebra finches. J. Exp. Biol. 204, 2509–2515 (2001)

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Hart, N. S., Partridge, J. C., Cuthill, I. C. & Bennett, A. T. D. Visual pigments, oil droplets, ocular media and cone photoreceptor distribution in two species of passerine: the blue tit (Parus caeruleus L.) and the blackbird (Turdus merula L.). J. Comp. Physiol. [A] 186, 375–387 (2000)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Rasband, W. ImageJ v. 1.30 (http://rsb.info.nih.gov/ij/docs/, National Institutes of Health, USA, 2003).

  19. 19

    Parraga, C. A., Troscianko, T. & Tolhurst, D. J. Spatiochromatic properties of natural images and human vision. Curr. Biol. 12, 483–487 (2002)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Cuthill, I. C. et al. Ultraviolet vision in birds. Adv. Stud. Behav. 29, 159–214 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Majerus, M. E. N., Brunton, C. F. A. & Stalker, J. A bird's eye view of the peppered moth. J. Evol. Biol. 13, 155–159 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Cuthill, I. C. et al. Avian colour vision and avian video playback experiments. Acta Ethol. 3, 29–37 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Cox, D. R. Regression models and life-tables. J. R. Stat. Soc. B 34, 187–220 (1972)

    MathSciNet  MATH  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    SPSS for Windows Release 9.0 (SPSS Inc., Chicago, 2003).

Download references

Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Innes C. Cuthill.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

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

Download citation

Further reading

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.