Camouflage is the primary defence of many animals and includes multiple strategies that interfere with figure-ground segmentation and object recognition. While matching background colours and textures is widespread and conceptually straightforward, less well explored are the optical 'tricks', collectively called disruptive colouration, that exploit perceptual grouping mechanisms. Adjacent high contrast colours create false edges, but this is not sufficient for an object's shape to be broken up; some colours must blend with the background. We test the novel hypothesis that this will be particularly effective when the colour patches on the animal appear to belong to, not merely different background colours, but different background objects. We used computer-based experiments where human participants had to find cryptic targets on artificial backgrounds. Creating what appeared to be bi-coloured foreground objects on bi-coloured backgrounds, we generated colour boundaries that had identical local contrast but either lay within or between (illusory) objects. As predicted, error rates for targets matching what appeared to be different background objects were higher than for targets which had otherwise identical local contrast to the background but appeared to belong to single background objects. This provides evidence for disruptive colouration interfering with higher-level feature integration in addition to previously demonstrated low-level effects involving contour detection. In addition, detection was impeded in treatments where targets were on or in close proximity to multiple background colour or tone boundaries. This is consistent with other studies which show a deleterious influence of visual 'clutter' or background complexity on search.
Espinosa, I., & Cuthill, I. C. (2014). Disruptive colouration and perceptual grouping. PLoS ONE, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0087153