Project NightJar

Project Nightjar is one of the Sensory Ecology Group’s studies, based at the University of Exeter (Cornwall Campus), in collaboration with the Behavioural Ecology Group at the University of Cambridge.

The project aims to increase our understanding of camouflage in the wild and its relationship with survival. To do this the team study the camouflage of ground nesting birds, and their eggs and chicks.

Their fieldwork is conducted in Zambia and South Africa where they photograph the birds in their natural environment, identify their main predators and monitor their survival. Once back in the UK they can then use the images to model the relevant predator visual systems (which are often very different to our own).

They also use computer games in experiments to find out about animal perception, and how it differs between our predator types. Humans have the same perception as Vervet Monkeys (that love to munch on nightjar eggs!) so with the help of FoAM Kernow's Dave Griffiths they are using online games as a form of 'citizen science'.

Throughout nature, animals are under a constant risk of predation. To avoid this, many have evolved defences, of which camouflage to be hidden is perhaps most common. Camouflage has also long interested humans for military purposes, recreation, fashion, art and design, and continues to be important in all these areas. But how does camouflage work, what types exist, and how does it evolve in different habitats?

Our Sensory and Evolutionary Ecology research group studies animal vision and anti-predator coloration. This year they have released an online computer game, in the form of an egg hunt, to understand camouflage and its evolution through ‘citizen science’.

The game involves people from all over the world playing and taking the part of ‘predators’ that embark on an egg hunt, searching for eggs on different backgrounds. After each generation all the eggs in a ‘population’ are assessed in terms of how long they took to find. Then, the next generation starts with only the eggs that were most effectively hidden, plus some mutated versions with different patterns. Over time we hope the eggs should evolve different camouflage patterns and become better hidden and harder to spot.

The egg hunt involves eggs that are hidden in images broadly based on the nesting habitats of three nightjar species from a study site in Zambia; the Mozambique nightjar which specializes in nesting on bare ground, the Fiery-necked nightjar which specializes in nesting on leaf litter, and the Pennant-winged nightjar that is a generalist, nesting on both bare ground and leaf litter. At the end of the game we will analyse how good the egg camouflage is against the different habitat types, and what type of camouflage evolves.

In addition, there is an extra game where people can create their own egg hunt and challenge friends to find their hidden eggs. This challenge will also get harder as the eggs in the main game evolve!

This is a genuine scientific experiment that anyone around the world can take part in with a computer, smartphone, or tablet. By playing they’ll help science to discover something new about camouflage and evolution. The game also allows people to experience and understand some of the basic concepts of camouflage, evolution and survival of the fittest. Only the most camouflaged eggs will survive and evolve over time. Family trees for the most successful eggs will be available as well as a construction kit showing how the eggs are made. In addition, changes in average survival time for eggs of each species can be viewed on a graph.

The work is part of a wider project involving a team led by Martin Stevens at the University of Exeter and Claire Spottiswoode at the University of Cambridge, investigating camouflage in ground nesting birds in Africa, including nightjars and plovers:
nightjar.exeter.ac.uk

For more information relevant to the project and our work in general:

Main website:

Twitter sites:
@SensoryEcology
@ProjectNightjar

Facebook page:
www.facebook.com/SensoryEcology

The team involved: 

  • Dr. Martin Stevens, University of Exeter
  • Mr. Dave Griffiths, FoAM Kernow – the computer programmer who made the game.
  • Dr. Jolyon Troscianko - University of Exeter
  • Mr. Jared Wilson-Aggarwal - University of Exeter
  • Dr. Claire Spottiswoode – University of Cambridge