I Didn't See Nothin'

Dragonflies use motion camouflage to attack prey

08-01-2003 // Roger Di Silvestro

SOME OF US, looking at a dragonfly dancing through the air and lighting on a wisp of grass, think of the creature's delicacy and beauty, the hypnotic glitter of its slim, seemingly metallic body. Others look at a dragonfly and see a model for a modern weapon.

Dragonflies and hoverflies, when attacking prey, use flight patterns that deceive the targets into thinking the predators are not moving. The deception is called "motion camouflage," and its success depends on the attacking insect keeping itself positioned between the target and a fixed point in the landscape. Recently researchers at the Australian National University in Canberra used video to corroborate that the insects do in fact adjust their flight paths so that their targets see them as stationary and therefore as no threat. But then WHAM! And it's all over for the prey.

Now, researchers at Queen Mary College, University of London, have discovered that humans fall for the same trick. Using video games, the scientists found that motion-camouflaged missiles got much closer to targeted players than did other missiles, such as heat seekers. Seeing military applications, the researchers concluded that motion-camouflaged missiles, guided by software based on dragonfly flight patterns, would work especially well at knocking aircraft out of the sky. The British Ministry of Defense apparently agrees, because it has expressed interest in the technology.

The flight pattern has served dragonflies well. The insects have existed for more than 200 million years. It seems unlikely that technological application of camouflage motion will keep humans around that long.

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