Just like that! Meet Mother Nature's magicians

Animal illusionists trick predators, win mates, even disappear – and there are more of them than we thought, says new research

They are the magicians of the animal kingdom – they can disappear, make themselves look bigger, or slip away, thanks to classic distraction techniques, and can even make you think black is white and white is black.

Some of the techniques deployed by animals are similar to those used by human illusionists to pull off incredible tricks such as levitation or making the Statue of Liberty seemingly vanish into thin air.

A paper published earlier this month in Behavioral Ecology journal pulled together a wide range of animal studies and concluded that such animal masters of illusion could be much more common in nature than previously thought.

And the ability to fool a potential mate or predator will have had a significant effect on the evolution of life as we know it.

The great bowerbird creates "one of the most... fascinating examples of a visual illusion", the paper says. The male clears an area to display for the female, but arranges grey objects such as stones and pieces of bone so that small bits are near the centre and larger bits are further away, producing a "forced perspective" effect. It is thought that the bird does this so that either he or the coloured objects he puts on display look bigger to the female.

Male fiddler crabs may also exploit the effect known as the Ebbinghaus illusion, in which a dot can be made "bigger" by surrounding it with smaller dots. Female crabs prefer males with bigger claws and have been found to approach males who display beside smaller-clawed rivals, "most likely because these males look relatively more attractive".

Like female fiddler crabs, humans are fooled by the Ebbinghaus illusion, but, strangely, baboons are not.

Male peacock spiders are also practised illusionists. During courtship displays, they raise their abdominal flaps to attract a mate, but also sneakily lift their third pair of legs, making the flaps "appear taller and wider than they are in reality", the paper says.

Such "magic" can help in defence, too. Butterflies' eyespots may play a protective role "by drawing the attention" of a predator. This distraction technique could give predators "false information about the prey's likely escape trajectory" by suggesting the head is at the opposite end.

Tiger moths have developed a vanishing trick – at least if you are a bat using sonar to home in on a tasty meal. The moths emit clicks of their own, jamming the bat's signal and enabling them to disappear long enough to make a getaway.

Then there's "simultaneous brightness contrast", which can be used to create "false perceptions" of colour – say, by making the same colour appear either brown or yellow, depending on the background. It is thought that male guppies and a number of other animals may exploit this effect, so that their markings appear brighter to female guppies but "darken" when a predator arrives.

Glasgow-based magician Paul Nardini said: "Animals evolved these techniques to save themselves." He said perspective-altering effects could "make things seem far away or near" – one of the techniques used to "make the Statue of Liberty disappear". And camouflage and colour contrast, he said, can be used to make it appear that objects are levitating.

One of the paper's authors, Dr Laura Kelley, of Cambridge University, told The IoS she was "really intrigued by the idea of size illusions – that animals can affect how attractive they are by changing a few simple things".

Dr Kelley, who wrote the paper with her sister, Dr Jennifer Kelley, of the University of Western Australia, added that she preferred animal magic to the Magic Circle. "I'm not a big fan of magicians because I don't like not knowing how things are done," she said.

The magic of nature

Fiddler crabs

During mating displays, the males stand beside other males who have smaller claws to make their own claws look bigger.

Tiger moths

Send out clicks that jam the sonar of bats hunting them, so that the moths can, in effect, disappear – and escape.

Frogs

The spotted grass frog uses highly contrasted markings to create "false edge" camouflage.

Sea hares

Shoot out fake food to distract lobsters that prey on them.

Great bowerbirds

The males arrange grey objects such as stones in a size gradient that can make the male birds look bigger to females.

Guppies

May exploit the "simultaneous brightness contrast" effect, which can make the same colour look brown or yellow, depending on the background.

Arts and Entertainment
'A voice untroubled by time': Kate Bush
musicReview: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Life and Style
Cooked up: reducing dietary animal fat might not be as healthy as government advice has led millions of people to believe
healthA look at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
News
peopleJustin Bieber accuses papparrazzi of acting 'recklessly' after car crash
Life and Style
tech
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
people
Voices
voices
Sport
Roger Federer is greeted by Michael Jordan following his victory over Marinko Matosevic
tennisRoger Federer gets Michael Jordan's applause following tweener shot in win over Marinko Matosevic
Arts and Entertainment
Oppressive atmosphere: the cast of 'Tyrant'
tvIntroducing Tyrant, one of the most hotly anticipated dramas of the year
News
i100
News
Ukrainian Leonid Stadnik, 37, 2.59 meter (8,5 feet) tall, the world's tallest living man, waves as he poses for the media by the Chevrolet Tacuma car presented to him by President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko in Kiev on March 24, 2008.
newsPeasant farmer towered at almost 8'5'' - but shunned the limelight
News
Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in ‘The Front Page’, using an old tech typewriter
media
Life and Style
Could a robot sheepdog find itself working at Skipton Auction Mart?
techModel would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian
film
Sport
Angel Di Maria poses with Louis van Gaal after signing for Manchester United
sportWinger arrives from Real Madrid and could make debut on Saturday
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Hooked on classical: cellist Rachael Lander began drinking to combat panic attacks
musicThe cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow...
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Organisational Change/ Transition Project Manager

£500 - £550 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently...

Head of IT (Not-for-Profit sector) - East Sussex

£45000 - £50000 per annum + 5 weeks holiday & benefits: Ashdown Group: Head of...

Accountacy Tutor

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Randstad Education is looking...

Generalist HR Administrator, Tunbridge Wells, Kent - £28,000.

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Administrator - Tunbri...

Day In a Page

Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

From strung out to playing strings

Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

A big fat surprise about nutrition?

The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

On the road to nowhere

A Routemaster trip to remember
Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

Hotel India

Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
10 best pencil cases

Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

Pete Jenson: A Different League

Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
Britain’s superstar ballerina

Britain’s superstar ballerina

Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
Berlin's Furrie invasion

Berlin's Furrie invasion

2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis