Visual illusions in predator–prey interactions: birds find moving patterned prey harder to catch

Abstract

Several antipredator strategies are related to prey colouration. Some colour patterns can create visual illusions during movement (such as motion dazzle), making it difficult for a predator to capture moving prey successfully. Experimental evidence about motion dazzle, however, is still very scarce and comes only from studies using human predators capturing moving prey items in computer games. We tested a motion dazzle effect using for the first time natural predators (wild great tits, Parus major). We used artificial prey items bearing three different colour patterns: uniform brown (control), black with elongated yellow pattern and black with interrupted yellow pattern. The last two resembled colour patterns of the aposematic, polymorphic dart-poison frog Dendrobates tinctorius. We specifically tested whether an elongated colour pattern could create visual illusions when combined with straight movement. Our results, however, do not support this hypothesis. We found no differences in the number of successful attacks towards prey items with different patterns (elongated/interrupted) moving linearly. Nevertheless, both prey types were significantly more difficult to catch compared to the uniform brown prey, indicating that both colour patterns could provide some benefit for a moving individual. Surprisingly, no effect of background (complex vs. plain) was found. This is the first experiment with moving prey showing that some colour patterns can affect avian predators’ ability to capture moving prey, but the mechanisms lowering the capture rate are still poorly understood.

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Acknowledgments

We are most grateful to Helinä Nisu for taking care of the birds, to Morgan Brain for help during the preference tests, and to Laura Kelley for helpful comments on the manuscript. Permits for experiments with wild birds were issued by the Central Finland Centre for Economic Development, Transport and Environment (KESELY/1017/07.01/2010) and the National Animal Experiment Board (ESAVI-2010-087517Ym-23). The study was funded by Societas Biologica Fennica Vanamo (grant to LH), and the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Biological Interactions (project SA-252411).

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Correspondence to Bibiana Rojas.

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Hämäläinen, L., Valkonen, J., Mappes, J. et al. Visual illusions in predator–prey interactions: birds find moving patterned prey harder to catch. Anim Cogn 18, 1059–1068 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-015-0874-0

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Keywords

  • Aposematism
  • Colour polymorphism
  • Motion dazzle
  • Predator–prey interactions
  • Visual illusions