Disruptive colouration in reef fish: does matching the background reduce predation risk?

Genevieve Phillips, Martin How, Julia Lange, N. Justin Marshall, Karen L Cheney

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)
281 Downloads (Pure)


Animals use disruptive colouration to prevent detection or recognition by potential predators or prey. Highly contrasting elements within colour patterns, including vertical or horizontal bars, are thought to be effective at distracting attention away from body form and reducing detection likelihood. However, it is unclear whether such patterns need to be a good match to the spatial characteristics of the background to gain cryptic benefits. We tested this hypothesis using the iconic vertically barred humbug damselfish, Dascyllus aruanus (Linneaus 1758), a small reef fish that lives among the finger-like projections of branching coral colonies. Using behavioural experiments, we demonstrated that the spatial frequency of the humbug pattern does not need to exactly match the spatial frequency of the coral background to reduce the likelihood of being attacked by two typical reef fish predators: slingjaw wrasse, Epibulus insidiator (Pallas 1770), and coral trout, Plectropomus leopardus (Lacépède 1802). Indeed, backgrounds with a slightly higher spatial frequency than the humbug body pattern provided more protection from predation than well-matched backgrounds. These results were consistent for both predator species, despite differences in their mode of foraging and visual acuity, which was measured using anatomical techniques. We also showed that a slight mismatch in the orientation of the vertical bars did not increase the chances of detection. However, the likelihood of attack did increase significantly when the bars were perpendicular to the background. Our results provide evidence that fish camouflage is more complex than it initially appears, with likely many factors influencing the detection likelihood of prey by relevant predators.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1962-1974
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number11
Early online date31 May 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2017


  • visual ecology
  • predator-prey relationship
  • fourier analysis
  • behaviour
  • disruptive camouflage


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