How camouflage works

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2017 Jul 5;372(1724):20160341. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2016.0341.


For camouflage to succeed, an individual has to pass undetected, unrecognized or untargeted, and hence it is the processing of visual information that needs to be deceived. Camouflage is therefore an adaptation to the perception and cognitive mechanisms of another animal. Although this has been acknowledged for a long time, there has been no unitary account of the link between visual perception and camouflage. Viewing camouflage as a suite of adaptations to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio provides the necessary common framework. We review the main processes in visual perception and how animal camouflage exploits these. We connect the function of established camouflage mechanisms to the analysis of primitive features, edges, surfaces, characteristic features and objects (a standard hierarchy of processing in vision science). Compared to the commonly used research approach based on established camouflage mechanisms, we argue that our approach based on perceptual processes targeted by camouflage has several important benefits: specifically, it enables the formulation of more precise hypotheses and addresses questions that cannot even be identified when investigating camouflage only through the classic approach based on the patterns themselves. It also promotes a shift from the appearance to the mechanistic function of animal coloration.This article is part of the themed issue 'Animal coloration: production, perception, function and application'.

Keywords: animal coloration; crypsis; defensive coloration; signal-to-noise ratio; visual search.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Mimicry*
  • Invertebrates / physiology*
  • Signal-To-Noise Ratio
  • Vertebrates / physiology*
  • Visual Perception*