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Unmasking an Animal’s Camouflage

College of Natural Resources undergraduate dissects snowshoe hare camouflage

Zebras have stripes. Leopards sport spots. Snowshoe hares disappear into a snowy landscape. But, despite their concealment, University of Idaho senior Spencer Colvin is working on a computer program to understand how successfully animals conceal themselves.

In fall 2018, Colvin wanted to gain undergraduate research experience at U of I in preparation for applying to graduate school. With a background in fish and wildlife sciences, the 22-year-old from Jerome paired with College of Natural ResourcesJanet Rachlow, a professor of wildlife ecology, to create a research project in line with his interests in animal ecology.

They landed on studying the camouflage of snowshoe hares, a native to North America. The hares morph from white hair in the winter to brown hair in the summer.

The two teamed with College of Art and Architecture’s Kyle Harrington, an assistant professor of virtual technology and design, so Colvin would have support with the computer science aspects of the project. The team’s goal is to develop technology that can assess the quality of a subject’s — in this case snowshoe hare’s — camouflage.

Parsing Out Camouflage

Colvin started working with computer software called ImageJ, which was made to dissect images. The ImageJ software can be used for analyzing the blends of color in artwork or the effectiveness of camouflage clothing.

“The program is basically only limited to what your imagination can bring,” Colvin said. “You can utilize its technology for so much more than just photos of animals.”

Colvin, Harrington and one of Harrington’s graduate students are developing ways to analyze photographs of animals in their natural settings with the ImageJ software. When complete, their computer program will be able to distinguish between the subject and its background and calculate how well the animal blends in with its surroundings.

"What happens when the animal turns white, and it ends up not fully blending into its environment?" Spencer Colvin, fish and wildlife sciences undergraduate

Colvin combs through each photo of snowshoe hares and actively selects the pixels belonging to the animal, telling the program all the selected pixels are the subject while all other pixels are the background.

“Basically, we are asking, ‘How well do snowshoe hares camouflage themselves?’” Colvin said. “With this research, you could take that simple question and grow it so many ways.”

In the long run, Colvin wants to keep the completed computer software free for anyone to use. Some people, he said, might want to toy around with the program, while others might want to use it for their own research. This could mean testing the effectiveness of camouflage clothing or using the software for other animal species.

Spencer Colvin sits at a computer terminal.
Spencer Colvin works on a computer in U of I’s Integrated Research and Innovation Center.

The Climate Change and the Hare

Once complete, Colvin said Rachlow will use the program to answer questions about snowshoe hares’ responses to climate change.

“When temperatures rise, there is less of a need for the snowshoe hare to change to a snow-white color in the winter,” Colvin said. “What happens when the animal turns white, and it ends up not fully blending into its environment?”

Harrington said he hopes their computer program will allow for more animal species to be analyzed down the road.

“Our quantitative methods are based upon computer vision and artificial intelligence. If they are successful, then we may be able to extend our study to larger geographical extents — maybe even evaluating changes in animal camouflage on a global scale,” Harrington said.

Because Harrington usually works with virtual technology and design students, he said his work with Colvin has been an interesting learning experience in how to work with undergraduate researchers outside his area of discipline.

“His intuitions have been a great asset in this research, and his fieldwork experience means he has an understanding of the context of the research beyond that of many others,” Harrington said. “I definitely look forward to continuing to work with Spencer and seeing how his insights reflect on the next stages of research.”

Colvin said he never expected to blend both wildlife studies and computer science. Although the more difficult computer science-related aspects of this research proved to be a challenge for Colvin, he said it has been a positive learning experience.

“I came into this as a fish and wildlife student, but this research is heavily computer science. The only fish and wildlife aspect of this project is the snowshoe hare,” Colvin said. “I have very little background in computer sciences, as I’m not a super technical person.”

Now, with a background in fish and wildlife sciences and applicable knowledge in computer science, Colvin said he feels ready for the obstacles graduate school might bring.

“The computer aspect of this project was very new to me,” Colvin said. “That piece of the project has really helped me hone a number of skills and rounded out my education.”

A white snowshoe hare sits on a brown forest floor.
Pictured is a snowshoe hare.
A white snowshoe hare sits on a brown forest floor with an overlay of green and red pixels that separate the hare from the forest.
Pictured is a snowshoe hare with the hare separated from the background.

Spencer Colvin is an OUR Undergraduate Research Grant award recipient.

Article by Hailey Stewart, a senior from Middleton majoring in journalism.

Photos by Megan Murphy, a senior from Sun Valley studying advertising.

Published in March 2019.


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