Evolutionary biologists frequently wish to measure the fitness of alternative phenotypes using behavioural experiments. However, many phenotypes are complex. For example colouration: camouflage aims to make detection harder, while conspicuous signals (e.g. for warning or mate attraction) require the opposite. Identifying the hardest and easiest to find patterns is essential for understanding the evolutionary forces that shape protective colouration, but the parameter space of potential patterns (coloured visual textures) is vast, limiting previous empirical studies to a narrow range of phenotypes. Here we demonstrate how deep learning combined with genetic algorithms can be used to augment behavioural experiments, identifying both the best camouflage and the most conspicuous signal(s) from an arbitrarily vast array of patterns. To show the generality of our approach, we do so for both trichromatic (e.g. human) and dichromat (e.g. typical mammalian) visual systems, in two different habitats. The patterns identified were validated using human participants; those identified as the best for camouflage were significantly harder to find than a tried-and-tested military design, while those identified as most conspicuous were significantly easier than other patterns. More generally, our method, dubbed the ‘Camouflage Machine’, will be a useful tool for identifying the optimal phenotype in high dimensional state-spaces.
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Award: EP/M006905/1