How Motion Dazzle Works and Why it Matters to a Zebra

Nature's weirdest form of camouflage thrives in gif form.

There are two primary methods of camouflage in animals: crypsis, which involves mimicking patterns to blend in with specific environments, and mimesis, which involves looking like something scary or otherwise unappetizing. The problem with both of these approaches is that they require a willingness to play the waiting game. Make a movement and the jig is up. This is why evolution has favored, in the case of animals too big to fit in and constitutionally opposed to standing still, motion dazzle markings.

Motion dazzle doesn’t help animals hide. To the contrary, animals with motion dazzle patterning — zebras are the classic example — are easy to spot from a ways off. When they start to moving, however, their patterns make it nearly impossible to focus on an individual target. Lions attacking a herd of zebras or lionfish attacking a school of zebrafish are going to have the same problem zeroing in on a victim.

A 2011 study by UK zoologists found that “moving targets with stripes were caught significantly less often and missed more often than targets with camouflage patterns.” The high contrast patterns are thought to “[cause errors in speed and direction perception of targets that are in motion,” according to a 2014 paper by another UK zoology team. Another study from just last year found that besides stripes, other patterns were very effective at preventing capture by predatory entities.

Non-zebra dazzlers include giraffes, jaguars, tigers, and the British Navy, which has at various points created bizarre motion dazzle paintjobs for their war ships in an apparent — and presumably successful for one reason or another — attempt to baffle their enemies. Spurred by the zoologist John Graham Kerr, those nations began painting some of their ships in brightly striped patterns — not to hide the ships, but to make it more difficult for enemies to gauge their sizes, shapes, speed, and direction.

Why did dazzle patterns soon fall out of favor among the world’s biggest militaries? The biggest reason was radar and sonar. You don’t need to rely on sight observations to determine what an enemy ship is doing and how fast it’s doing it when you can just track it by radio and sound waves.

Still motion dazzle is so eye-catching and visually dynamic that it doesn’t need to be practical to retain its popularity with designers. Of late, it’s been making inroads in footwear, heaving thrived — largely in the form of zebra-skin rugs — in ‘80s interior design.

And gifs. There are a lot of gifs and they are all strangely watchable — perhaps because the carnivores inside us are familiar with this sort of frustration. Or maybe it’s just beautiful.

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