We study animal coloration and vision, especially anti-predator coloration, colour change, and human impacts on behaviour, coloration, and sensory ecology.
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 the form and diversity of colour patterns and visual systems results from varied selection pressures (e.g. from different habitats, predator search behaviour, receiver vision).
- How humans are impacting coloration and behaviour in nature, through climate change, sound and chemical pollution.
- and to develop and implement methods to quantify animal colours and patterns objectively and from the perspective of the relevant observer’s vision
- how arms races and coevolution drive both within and between species diversity in animal coloration and vision.
- how an understanding of animal vision can be used to improve animal welfare, safety, performance, and new products.
Colour pattern diversity in marine species
A key area of current research is aimed at understanding why so many intertidal marine animals occur in numerous colour forms, both within and among species, and what mechanisms and functions drive this. We are focussing on sea anemones and crabs to answer these questions, which also relate to key questions regarding efficacy of camouflage, prey luring, and warning signals.
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.
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’).
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. Our current work focusses on warning signals in nudibranch sea slugs and sea anemones. Win the part, we have also undertaken 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.
Human impacts on coloration and behaviour
We are increasingly undertaking research and image analysis to investigate how humans are affecting the behaviour and coloration of animals and plants, including research on how camouflage, behaviour, and colour change in marine animals is affected by sound and chemical pollution, how climate change might influence seasonal mammal coloration, and how human harvesting can drive camouflage in plants.
We also investigate how an understanding of animal vision can influence more applied areas. This includes projects with horse sports, animal housing, and farming in order to improve animal welfare, safety, and performance. We have also worked with companies on new product design, and regularly work with museums and outreach events. See here for more information.
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 often opportunities in the lab, especially regarding camouflage in marine animals, anthropogenic change, and coloration and vision. Please get in touch.
Alumni, visitors, and MSc students (since 2013)
Emmanuelle Briolat (BBSRC Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, 2019-2021). Optimising camouflage in heterogenous habitats.
Anna Hughes (BBSRC Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, 2017-2019). Optimising camouflage in heterogenous habitats.
Jiayun (Bonnie) Wu. Visiting lecturer from Sichuan Agricultural University, China (2019-2020) on colour change in fish.
Yang Niu (Kunming Institute of Botany funded Post-Doc, 2017-2018). Camouflage in plants.
Jolyon Troscianko (BBSRC funded RA and Post-Doctoral Research Associate, 2012 – 2017). Camouflage in birds and camouflage theory; image analysis; brood parasites.
Sarah Paul (Racing Foundation, BHA, Post-Doctoral Research Associate, 2017-2018). Horse vision and fence design.
Ossi Nokelainen (Emil Aaltonen Foundation Post-Doctoral Research Associate, 2015 – 2016). Camouflage in shore crabs.
Victoria Lee (NERC, 2015-2019). Social intelligence in jackdaws.
Sara Mynott (NERC, 2014-2018). (NERC). Impacts of climate change on camouflage and predation in intertidal animals.
Ian Chan (NUS Scholarship, 2014-2019). Quantifying animal colour patterns.
Emmanuelle Briolat (BBSRC, 2014-2018). Signal honesty and form in aposematic burnet moths.
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.
Charlotte Jeffers 2018 – 2020). Camouflage and climate change in snowshoe hares.
Maria Watson (2018 – 2020). Camouflage and microplastics in shore crabs.
Emily Carter (2017 – 2019). Camouflage, colour change, and marine noise.
Natasha Price (2015 – 2017). Camouflage and pattern matching in shore crabs.
Jenny Easley (2014 – 2015). Camouflage and phenotypic matching in shore crabs.
Samuel Smithers (2014-2015). Camouflage and colour change in rockpool fish.
Eleanor Caves (Newnham College, Cambridge Scholarship, 2011-2012). Brood parasitism and avian egg polymorphism.
Employed Research and Project Assistants
Miranda Walter (2017 & 2018). Research assistant on equine vision and horse sports.
Molly Rogers (2016-2017). BBSRC Pathfinder – Animal Vision Applications.
Nik Hubbard (2016). Applications of animal vision and imaging.
Alice Lown (BBSRC 2012 – 2015). Anti-predator coloration and behaviour.
Jared Wilson-Aggarwal (BBSRC 2012 – 2014). Camouflage in birds.
MSc and MSci Students
Gabriella Oliver (2017/18). Colour change and behavioural choice in chameleon prawns.
Jim Galloway (2017). Colour change in chameleon prawns.
Hugh Balmer (2017). Colour change in chameleon prawns.
Harry Johnson (2017). Colour change in chameleon prawns.
Ateah Alfakih (2017). Colour change in chameleon prawns.
Alex Szczurek (2017). Carotenoids, diet, and coloration in frogs.
Olivia Walton (2017). Camouflage and bird vision in peppered moths.
Anna Hunter (2017). Equine vision and donkey welfare.
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).