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World Leading St. Andrews Scholarship in Vision and Camouflage

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  • Full or part time
    Prof J Harris
    Dr J Ales
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

Animals have evolved coloration that provides them with exquisite camouflage against complex backgrounds. But when an animal moves, camouflage is often thought to be effectively ‘broken’, with the animal becoming instantly visible. How can animals exploit the motion processing limitations of visual systems to adapt their own motion to reduce camouflage breaking, or even to exploit motion as a form of camouflage in itself?

Many species, especially predators, have visual systems that are exquisitely tuned to motion. For humans, for example, a region of the world containing a difference in motion from the stationary background quickly draws attention to that location. However, there has been very little exploration of what types of relative motion might occur in the natural environment, where there is motion of both background and target. There is some literature that suggests both prey and predator animals sometimes move in unusual ways, such as stick insects “swaying” to mimic twigs caught in a breeze. These, and other, unusual motion behaviours have been suggested as being beneficial for camouflage, but no work has mathematically quantified these motions, nor considered why and how they might deliver camouflage. One reason for this gap in knowledge is that the key research is often conducted by biologists with deep knowledge of particular study species, but who do not have the mathematical skill to test or develop mathematical models of visual systems. Hence, our project is distinctively interdisciplinary, relying on a breadth of skills that are available in St. Andrews.

This project will offer a numerate PhD student (with a possible background in engineering, physics, maths or other numerate discipline; or psychology or biology, where the student demonstrates suitable mathematical skills) the opportunity to utilize and develop neural-level models of visual motion processing in predator visual systems and to use them to analyse what patterns of motion makes prey movement harder to detect, and thus could provide better camouflage. Models of motion processing in the brain have been used and developed by our team and thus provide an excellent start-point for the student to begin their project. The models will be applied to combinations of natural background motions, real predator motions (which will usually also incorporate specific background motion), and simulated prey motion, where we can control the types of motion, based on our extensive knowledge of motion processing in the brain.

A second strand to the project will use experimental psychology methods to deliver empirical evidence to support the modeling. We will measure how well the motion patterns that deliver ‘best’ camouflage are actually detected by a ‘generalist predator’. Humans are a good choice of candidate generalist predator. We have successfully tested models of other forms of camouflage in humans, work that has led to further studies in other predator species. Here, we use the same approach but, for the first time, measure how the human visual system is beaten by patterns of motion that deliver a camouflage advantage.

Funding Notes

This opportunity is open to all nationalities and domiciles.

The award covers full tuition fees for up to 3.5 years as well as an annual stipend payable at the standard UK Research council rate (the 2019-2020 annual rate is £15,009). See:

Apply by 5pm, to the School of Psychology and Neuroscience on 30 March 2020, following instructions on “how to apply” here:

Informal inquiries to the primary supervisor ([Email Address Removed]) are very strongly encouraged.

How good is research at University of St Andrews in Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 30.20

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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