CIE Spotlight: How do great bowerbirds construct perspective illusions?

Laura K. and John E.

Authors: Laura A. Kelley, John A. Endler

SourceRoyal Society Open Science, 18 January 2017

Brief summary of the paper: Many animals build structures to provide shelter, avoid predation, attract mates or house offspring, but the behaviour and potential cognitive processes involved during building are poorly understood.

Great bowerbird (Ptilinorhynchus nuchalis) males build and maintain display courts by placing tens to hundreds of objects in a positive size–distance gradient. The visual angles created by the gradient create a forced perspective illusion that females can use to choose a mate. Although the quality of illusion is consistent within males, it varies among males, which may reflect differences in how individuals reconstruct their courts. We moved all objects off display courts to determine how males reconstructed the visual illusion.

We found that all individuals rapidly created the positive size–distance gradient required for forced perspective within the first 10 objects placed. Males began court reconstruction by placing objects in the centre of the court and then placing objects further out, a technique commonly used when humans lay mosaics. The number of objects present after 72 h was not related to mating success or the quality of the illusion, indicating that male skill at arranging objects rather than absolute number of objects appears to be important.

We conclude that differences arise in the quality of forced perspective illusions despite males using the same technique to reconstruct their courts.