Animal visual illusions

Animals interact visually all the time. Males try to look big and scary to rivals, or sexy to females. Prey animals try to look inedible—or better, invisible—to predators. Sometimes these animals use visual trickery to assist their cause.

You’ve probably encountered visual illusions before. Here are some classic ones:

a) The vertical line looks longer than the horizontal line, even though they're both the same length. b) The top line looks longer than the bottom line, even though both are the same length. c) The middle circles are both the same size, but the one on the left looks bigger. d) The middle grey rectangle is just solid grey, but against the gradient background, it looks like a gradient. e) Both circles are the same shade of orange, but the one surrounded by black looks brighter.

a) The vertical line looks longer than the horizontal line, even though they’re both the same length. b) The top line looks longer than the bottom line, even though both are the same length. c) The middle circles are both the same size, but the one on the left looks bigger. d) The middle grey rectangle is just solid grey, but against the gradient background, it looks like a gradient. e) Both circles are the same shade of orange, but the one surrounded by black looks brighter.

Animals can use visual illusions a) and b) to appear bigger by changing their posture. Vertical stances make you look bigger than horizontal ones, and making a Y with your limbs looks bigger than letting them fall down. So if you’re a male peacock spider trying to look big and sexy to a female, you can raise a pair of back legs up in a Y to look bigger than you really are.

Peacock spider display. Photo by Jurgen Otto*

Peacock spider display. Photo by Jurgen Otto*

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Speeding kills bears

If you have ever driven through Yosemite National Park, you’ve seen them: distinctive yellow signs with a silhouette of a bear and the admonition, “Speeding Kills Bears.” Although it doesn’t say so on the sign, each sign is placed where a bear has been killed by a car.

On our last trip, driving through Yosemite on our way home, we saw the truth of this first-hand: a black bear lying dead at the side of the road, his blood still red on the asphalt. He was young, no larger than a St. Bernard.  His muzzle was delicate, his ears soft. Like many of the black bears I’ve seen, he was not just black, but had an elegant sweep of blond across his shoulders, like a shawl.

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