We study animal coloration and vision, especially anti-predator coloration, brood parasites, and sexual signals.
This involves research on a wide range of animal groups in both the lab and field. We also work to develop new tools to study and quantify animal visual signals, especially with the use of digital image analysis. Our main aims are to understand:
- animal coloration in terms of how the signals are perceived by the relevant observers
- how arms races and coevolution drive both within and between species diversity in animal coloration and vision
- how the form and diversity of colour patterns and visual systems results from varied selection pressures (e.g. from different habitats)
- and to develop and implement methods to quantify animal colours and patterns objectively and from the perspective of the relevant observer’s vision
Camouflage mechanisms and adaptive value
For almost 15 years we have studied camouflage, both in terms of how different types of concealment work (e.g. background matching, disruptive coloration, distractive markings), and the adaptive value provided. This work includes studies using human ‘predators’ and computer-experiments, field trials with wild predators and artificial prey, and studies with real animals in the wild (especially ground nesting birds, crustaceans, and reptiles).
We are also currently investigating how predator learning and cognition affect the value of different camouflage strategies (see here). Finally, we have undertaken various work testing the idea that some stripes and zig-zag markings can make it difficult for observers to judge the speed and direction of moving prey (‘motion dazzle’).
Colour change and camouflage
A major area of our research is to understand the value and mechanisms of colour change in animals, especially marine intertidal crustaceans. Many species can change colour over timescales of hours, days, and weeks, often for camouflage, yet most research has focussed on the relatively few species that rapidly change colour in seconds.
Our work seeks to understand how crabs and chameleon prawns are able to change colour over varied time periods (the mechanisms), the adaptive value this provides (predation risk), and the implications colour change has for within-species diversity. This work involves both experiments in the lab and fieldwork.
Warning signals and eyespots
Many animals have bright conspicuous warning colours to tell predators that they are toxic and should be avoided (‘aposematism’). Other species have conspicuous signals that are a bluff – they deter predators but the prey are actually harmless. We study these strategies in both real animals and using artificial systems.
Much of our work on aposematism has used ladybird beetles and day-flying moths to test what makes an effective warning signal, how diverse warning signals are in appearance across species, and whether strength of warning signals are honest indicators of how toxic prey are. We also undertake experiments on animal eyespots (paired circular markings common on fish and lepidopterans) to determine how they work and whether they truly mimic the eyes of other animals, as is often assumed.
We have conducted a range of collaborative work on avian brood parasites. The main aims have been to test how host parents detect a foreign egg in their nest, what features of egg colour and pattern hosts use to identify and reject parasitic eggs, and in turn, how parasites evolve mimicry of host eggs to evade detection.
We have also studied other areas of this subject, including chick coloration and mimicry. These projects have ranged from work on common cuckoos and their hosts in Europe, cuckoo finches in Africa, to projects on cuckoos in Australia and Japan.
Methods to study visual information
A fundamental feature of all our work is to model animal appearance and colour change with regards to the visual system of the relevant receiver (e.g. potential predators or mates).
To this end we use and have developed a wide range of approaches to both measure and quantify animal coloration (including in UV light) and patterns, and to model appearance to animal vision. In addition, we have developed various tools for colour and pattern analysis, including free software toolboxes using image analysis (see here).
See our publications page for a full list of our work.
Are you interested in joining our group?
There are a number of opportunities in our lab, especially for work on camouflage in shore animals and other areas of anti-predator coloration. Please get in touch if you are interested.
Alumni, visitors, and MSc students (since 2013)
Ossi Nokelainen (Emil Aaltonen Foundation Post-Doctoral Research Associate, 2015 – 2016). Camouflage in shore crabs.
Sarah Paul (NERC, 2012 – 2016). The price of defence: maternal effects in an aposematic ladybird.
Lina María Arenas (Colfuturo Scholarship, 2012 – 2016). The ecology of warning coloration of ladybird beetles: diversity, function and evolution.
Denise Dalbosco Dell’Aglio (Cambridge Overseas Scholarship, 2012 – 2016). Mimicry, bird and butterfly vision and its evolutionary implications in Heliconius butterflies.
Anna Hughes (BBSRC/CASE, 2011 – 2015). Dazzle coloration and psychophysics of movement.
Kate Marshall (BBSRC, 2011 – 2015). Sensory drive and divergence in island lizards.
Alexandra Torok (BBSRC, 2010 – 2015). Bird vision, cognition, and insect startle displays.
Jenny Easley (2014 – 2015). Camouflage and phenotypic matching in shore crabs.
Samuel Smithers (2014 – 2015). Camouflage and colour change in rockpool fish.
Full Time Research Assistants
Alice Lown (BBSRC 2012 – 2015). Anti-predator coloration and behaviour.
Jared Wilson-Aggarwal (BBSRC 2012 – 2014). Camouflage in birds.
Anna Barbanti (2016). Colour change in chameleon prawns.
Jake Burton (2016). Colour change in chameleon prawns.
Ruth Maynes (2016). Colour pattern change in crabs.
Eleanor Unsworth (2016). Butterfly eyespots and mimicry.
Lauren Wright (2016). Coloration and UV mimicry in butterflies.
Rachel Britt (2015). Sediment choice and imprinting in shore crabs.
Alexia Fish (2015). Chameleon colour change.
Sina Hesse (2015). Predator vision, camouflage and colour change in rockpool gobies.
Tom Major (2015). Chameleon colour change.
Karen Musgrave (2015). Predator vision, camouflage and colour change in shore crabs.
YuChun Tan (2015). Predator vision, aposematism and ladybird coloration.
Nik Hubbard (2014). Camouflage in shore crabs.
Dominic Walter (2014). Ladybird coloration and predation.
Alexander Denton (2013). Camouflage and colour change in rock pool gobies.
Andreas Schmid (2013). Insect startle displays and avian predation.
Louisa Wood (2013). Camouflage in shore crabs.
Pedro Eugenio (2016). Signalling and colouration in damselflies.
Russell Ligon (2016). Coloration and communication signals.
Rafael Duarte (2015). Colour polymorphism and camouflage in shrimp.
Luis Robledo-Ospina (2015). The relationship between spider coloration and microhabitat.
Ian Chan (2015). Quantifying morphological patterns in animals.
Jesús Gómez Esteban (2015). Coloration and camouflage of bird eggs, particularly shorebirds.
Jess Stephenson (2015). Guppy coloration and vision.
Iliana Medina Guzmán (2014). Egg coloration evolution in cuckoos and hosts.
Elisa Peréz (2014). Blue tit coloration and parasites.
Nikoletta Geltsch (2013). Egg coloration in common cuckoos.
We collaborate with a range researchers and groups, and would love to hear from anyone else who might like to work with us, including both academics and from industry.
- Carly Daniels (National Lobster Hatchery): Juvenile lobster coloration.
- Rafael Duarte (University of Sao Paulo): Colour change in prawns.
- Jesús Gómez (Estación Biológica de Doñana): Camouflage in ground nesting birds.
- James Higham (New York University): Primate vision and sexual signals.
- Chris Jiggins (Cambridge, Zoology): Evolution of mimicry and selection on Heliconius
- Carita Lindstedt (University of Jyväskylä): Prey polymorphism and warning signals.
- Johanna Mappes (University of Jyväskylä): Predator foraging, the evolution of prey polymorphisms and warning signals.
- Graeme Ruxton (St Andrews): Anti-predator behaviour, prey movement and coloration.
- John Skelhorn (Newcasle University): Camouflage strategies and predator learning.
- Claire Spottiswoode (Cambridge, Zoology): Coevolution and arms races in African parasitic finches and their hosts; the evolution of egg colour polymorphism and rejection behaviour, and camouflage in ground nesting African birds.
- Peter Todd (National University of Singapore): Crab camouflage and polymorphism.
- David Tolhurst (Cambridge, Physiology, Development & Neuroscience): Psychophysics and biology of anti-predator coloration and motion perception.
- Stephen Widdicombe (Plymouth Marine Laboratory): Intertidal ecosystems, predation, and climate change.
- Mika Zagrobelny (University of Copenhagen): Colouration and toxicity in burnet moths (Zygaenidae).