Rowe et al., How background complexity impairs target detection

Published: 5 January 2024| Version 1 | DOI: 10.17632/kgm7ztdzf9.1


Camouflage is frequently used by animals for concealment and thereby improves survival. Typically, it is the animal’s own colour and patterning which is expected to affect its detectability; however the complexity of the background can also have an influence. Although there is a growing literature examining this, the underlying exact mechanism is unknown. In this paper we address this issue by using humans as proxy ‘predators’ in a computer-based search task and monitoring their detection times for targets on varying backgrounds. By using artificial greyscale targets and backgrounds, we were able to isolate and manipulate the normally covarying factors which comprise ‘complexity’ in natural habitats. We show that reduced detection is not explained by greater information content (entropy) or higher variance in the background’s features per se, but instead by reduced signal-to-noise ratio in the visual features that potentially distinguish target from background. This raises questions about when the term complexity should be used, and how observers learn the characteristics of a background.



University of Bristol, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam


Camouflage, Animal Coloration, Visual Search