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Proc Biol Sci. 2008 Nov 22;275(1651):2539-45. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2008.0812.

Can't tell the caterpillars from the trees: countershading enhances survival in a woodland.

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  • 1School of Biological Sciences, University of Liverpool, Biosciences Building, Crown Street, Liverpool L69 7ZB, UK. h.m.rowland@liv.ac.uk

Abstract

Perception of the body's outline and three-dimensional shape arises from visual cues such as shading, contour, perspective and texture. When a uniformly coloured prey animal is illuminated from above by sunlight, a shadow may be cast on the body, generating a brightness contrast between the dorsal and ventral surfaces. For animals such as caterpillars, which live among flat leaves, a difference in reflectance over the body surface may degrade the degree of background matching and provide cues to shape from shading. This may make otherwise cryptic prey more conspicuous to visually hunting predators. Cryptically coloured prey are expected to match their substrate in colour, pattern and texture (though disruptive patterning is an exception), but they may also abolish self-shadowing and therefore either reduce shape cues or maintain their degree of background matching through countershading: a gradation of pigment on the body of an animal so that the surface closest to illumination is darker. In this study, we report the results from a series of field experiments where artificial prey resembling lepidopteran larvae were presented on the upper surfaces of beech tree branches so that they could be viewed by free-living birds. We demonstrate that countershading is superior to uniform coloration in terms of reducing attack by free-living predators. This result persisted even when we fixed prey to the underside of branches, simulating the resting position of many tree-living caterpillars. Our experiments provide the first demonstration, in an ecologically valid visual context, that shadowing on bodies (such as lepidopteran larvae) provides cues that visually hunting predators use to detect potential prey species, and that countershading counterbalances shadowing to enhance cryptic protection.

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