The Uncertainty of Dazzle Camouflage in War and Nature

A Dazzling group of Zebras, photo courtesy of Hilde Swets on Pixabay.

When I saw these zebras on Pixabay, I immediately thought of World War I. I know that sounds strange, so I’ll explain. You see, a group of zebras is called a Dazzle, for the perceptual confusion (“motion dazzle”) zoologists believe their stripes cause in the minds of predators when they see zebras move. With this in mind, the British and eventually the United States painted their ships with stripes and other high-contrast patterns, not to hide from the Germans, but to confuse them. I always assumed the dazzle markings worked, for both zebras and ships. I decided to investigate to be sure.

The stripes help, but how? One explanation: every zebra’s stripes are unique, enabling herds to maintain cohesiveness. For other possibilities, see here. Photo courtesy Tobias Mrzyk via Unsplash.

It turns out that tests on dazzled objects suggests the patterns helps zebras avoid capture. In two studies, predators (humans in all these tests) found it difficult to judge the speed of dazzled objects. In other research, predators captured objects camouflaged to match their backgrounds quicker than dazzle-patterned objects. In yet another series of inquiries, bedazzled objects that moved quickly confused predators; while the same objects moving at slower speeds were accurately perceived.

The effect of dazzle markings is not conclusive, however. Most animals survive without it. In some cases, dazzle even hurts. For example, in several cases human predators more easily captured high-contrast striped targets, like zebras, than low-contrast ones. And in another study, any advantage enjoyed by striped prey singly disappeared in groups. In regards to zebras, the effectiveness of dazzle remains uncertain.

A painting from 1918 shows U.S. Navy ships in zebra-style guize, from Wiki Commons.

What about the dazzle paint jobs applied to Allied merchant and navy ships in WWI? Did the dazzle fool enemy submarine commanders into misjudging a ship’s shape, speed, or distance? Artist Norman Wilkinson was sure it would when he hatched the idea for the dazzle paint scheme. Wilkinson produced the following illustration to explain his idea.

Norman Wilkinson’s intentions for bedazzled ships, from Wiki Commons.

It was an admirable adaptation of the motion dazzle idea, but after the war, researchers couldn’t agree if the paint schemes actually helped ships survive. Too many factors determined why the Germans attacked and sank one ship while ignoring or missing another, with the ship’s markings being just one among many. Some evidence suggests the paint scheme would have been more effective had the ships moved faster; but ships are lumbering by nature, so greater speed was out of the question. Dazzle reappeared in World War II, but advances in aircraft and the advent of radar meant that a ship’s captain could plot the direction and range of the enemy vessel without having to trust what he saw through his eyepiece. In ships as in Zebras, the results of dazzle are uncertain.

Works Cited

“Dazzle Camouflage,” Wikipedia.

“Do Lions See Color,” Lionaid.org.

“Hiding in Plain Sight–How WWI-Era ‘Dazzle’ Camouflage Could Save Lives in 21st Century War Zones,” MilitaryHistoryNow.com.

Hughes, Anna E., Jolyon Troscianko, and Martin Stevens, “Motion Dazzle and the Effects of Target Patterning on Capture Success,” BMC Evolutionary Biology, 2014.

Hughes, Anna E., Richard S. Magor-Elliott, and Martin Stevens, “The Role of Stripe Orientation in Target Capture Success,” Frontiers in Zoology, 2015.

Lopez, Mayela, “How do a Zebra’s Stripes Act as Camouflage?” How Stuff Works.

Steven, Martin et al., “Motion Dazzle and camouflage as distinct anti-predator defenses,” BMC Biology, 2011.

“World Wars Camouflage Technique Could Have Benefits in Modern Warfare,” University of Bristol. Public Release: 1 June 2011.

Categories: animals

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