Optimal background matching camouflage

Proc Biol Sci. 2017 Jul 12;284(1858):20170709. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2017.0709.


Background matching is the most familiar and widespread camouflage strategy: avoiding detection by having a similar colour and pattern to the background. Optimizing background matching is straightforward in a homogeneous environment, or when the habitat has very distinct sub-types and there is divergent selection leading to polymorphism. However, most backgrounds have continuous variation in colour and texture, so what is the best solution? Not all samples of the background are likely to be equally inconspicuous, and laboratory experiments on birds and humans support this view. Theory suggests that the most probable background sample (in the statistical sense), at the size of the prey, would, on average, be the most cryptic. We present an analysis, based on realistic assumptions about low-level vision, that estimates the distribution of background colours and visual textures, and predicts the best camouflage. We present data from a field experiment that tests and supports our predictions, using artificial moth-like targets under bird predation. Additionally, we present analogous data for humans, under tightly controlled viewing conditions, searching for targets on a computer screen. These data show that, in the absence of predator learning, the best single camouflage pattern for heterogeneous backgrounds is the most probable sample.

Keywords: animal coloration; camouflage; crypsis; defensive coloration; visual search.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Color
  • Environment
  • Humans
  • Pigmentation*
  • Predatory Behavior
  • Visual Perception*