Nest covering in plovers: how modifying the visual environment influences egg camouflage
Ecology and Evolution
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Camouflage is one of the most widespread antipredator defences, and its mechanistic basis has attracted considerable interest in recent years. The effectiveness of camouflage depends on the interaction between an animal's appearance and its background. Concealment can therefore be improved by changes to an animal's own appearance, by behaviorally selecting an optimal background, or by modifying the background to better match the animal's own appearance. Research to date has largely focussed on the first of these mechanisms, whereas there has been little work on the second and almost none on the third. Even though a number of animal species may potentially modify their environment to improve individual-specific camouflage, this has rarely if ever been quantitatively investigated, or its adaptive value tested. Kittlitz's plovers (Charadrius pecuarius) use material (stones and vegetation) to cover their nests when predators approach, providing concealment that is independent of the inflexible appearance of the adult or eggs, and that can be adjusted to suit the local surrounding background. We used digital imaging and predator vision modeling to investigate the camouflage properties of covered nests, and whether their camouflage affected their survival. The plovers' nest-covering materials were consistent with a trade-off between selecting materials that matched the color of the eggs, while resulting in poorer nest pattern and contrast matching to the nest surroundings. Alternatively, the systematic use of materials with high-contrast and small-pattern grain sizes could reflect a deliberate disruptive coloration strategy, whereby high-contrast material breaks up the telltale outline of the clutch. No camouflage variables predicted nest survival. Our study highlights the potential for camouflage to be enhanced by background modification. This provides a flexible system for modifying an animal's conspicuousness, to which the main limitation may be the available materials rather than the animal's appearance.
J.T., J.W-A. and M.S. were funded by a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) grant BB/J018309/1 to M.S., and a BBSRC David Phillips Research Fellowship (BB/G022887/1) to M.S., and C.N.S was funded by a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship, a BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship (BB/J014109/1) to C.N.S. and the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence at the FitzPatrick Institute. In South Africa we thank CapeNature and the FitzPatrick Institute for their support, and Jan & Malani Kotze, Steve Lombard and other land-owners for kindly allowing access to their land. We thank Juan Amat and an anonymous referee for helpful comments.
This is the author accepted manuscript. The final version is available from Wiley Open Access via the DOI in this record.
The dataset related to this article is available at http://hdl.handle.net/10871/23232 .
doi: 10.1002/ece3.2494. First published: 29 September 2016