Football teams playing in stripes could learn from the animal kingdom and bamboozle their opponents – if they can run quickly enough. Scientists have conducted studies to show that species with stripes can confuse predators by appearing blurred when they move swiftly.
It has long been known that some animals are better camouflaged when they are stationary by blending in but it has now been proven that those with stripes, particularly narrow ones, benefit from being mobile.
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Newcastle University researchers tested out their theories on praying mantises in a specially constructed miniature cinema. The insects were played videos of rectangular shapes which imitated bugs moving across a background similar to the natural environment.
As they watched movies of the bugs moving at different speeds, the mantises would move their heads and follow the bugs across the screen, tracking them as if they were prey. Some of the bugs had narrow or wide stripes, while others were patterned to match the background or had no pattern at all.
The research, published in Current Biology, showed that the mantises found it particularly hard to spot the patterned bugs with narrow stripes moving at faster speeds. This is believed to be because their stripes quickly become blurred to the predator and harder to see.
Lead author, Professor Candy Rowe, professor of Animal Behaviour and Cognition at Newcastle University explained: “We wanted to answer a puzzle that scientists have been wondering about for a while – can a pattern lower the chances that moving prey is seen by a predator?
“If you’re standing still, then looking like the background is one of the best ways to not be seen, whilst having high contrast stripes is just about the worst thing – you can really stand out. For moving prey, we find that the opposite is true: stripes are much better than matching your background.
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“So the answer is yes, if you’re stripy and move fast enough, then the blurring of the pattern can make it harder for the predator to spot you. While we did this experiment with praying mantises chasing rectangular bugs on a computer screen, the same principle should apply in the wild. So maybe stripes help to hide zebras running on the plains, or hoverflies flitting from flower to flower.”
Professor Rowe said Newcastle United’s famous black and white kit could have helped them over the decades – if the players were quick enough to get the benefit. She said: “So Newcastle United’s stripes may be helping throw off their opponents – as long as the players are running fast enough.”
Sir Alex Ferguson famously switched Manchester United’s grey away kit at half time when they were losing 3-0 at Southampton in 1996. The manager felt the players could not make each other out in the bright sunshine and they were blending in with the crowd, and they never wore that kit again.