I am delighted to have won a NERC Independent Research Fellowship. This 5-year fellowship will allow me to develop a new thread of independent research while building my own research group here at Exeter’s Cornwall campus. My research will focus on how camouflage is influenced by lighting and habitat structure.
Being spotted by a predator can spell the end for an animal. Camouflage is therefore critical to the survival of many species and is one of the most common anti-predator strategies in nature. An animal’s camouflage often depends on matching the colours and patterns of its surroundings, but how can it achieve this when the lighting conditions continually alter the background’s appearance? The vegetation and textures in a scene create complex shadows and patterns that rapidly disappear when a cloud passes over and diffuses the lighting. Likewise the colours in a scene depend on atmospheric conditions; on a clear day shadows are blue-tinted, and when overcast the lighting colour becomes uniform. Interactions between lighting conditions and three-dimensional habitat structure could therefore be essential for the success of an animal’s camouflage and affect its very survival.
A number of camouflage strategies have been identified that help animals stay unseen, and they often depend on specific lighting conditions. For example, counter-shading is a strategy found in many species that have dark backs and pale underbellies. This coloration helps to cancel out the shadows on the animal’s underside, making its tell-tale shape less easily recognised. Coloration that creates false textures and depth cues is also found in many species; tactics that mimic illumination by direct sunlight. Background pattern matching can protect animals from predators, but the background patterns will shift and change throughout the day. It is therefore possible that these strategies become ineffective or even counterproductive under diffuse, overcast conditions. Beyond basic colour differences it remains unknown how these camouflage strategies perform in different light environments and habitat structures; understanding this interaction – which could affect the survival of any visually hunted species – will be the focus of my proposed research.