Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Monday, March 06, 2017


Today is the 37th birthday of one of the world's most interesting and important National Parks, Komodo National Park in Indonesia's Lesser Sunda Archipelago. In North America, much has been made lately of the importance of our national park system in protecting biodiversity, and while it's probably true that it's our strongest tool for that job, that's less an endorsement of the parks than an indictment of our success in protecting biodiversity. With a couple of exceptions, the National Park tradition in this part of the world is to protect beautiful scenery rather than hotspots of biodiversity, but in the rest of the world, it's more common for national parks to take on that job, and Komodo National Park is one of the best examples of this, and an example in microcosm of the Sysiphean nature of that task. 

Komodo National Park was founded by the government of Indonesia in 1980 as a continuation of a long effort to protect the planet's largest lizard, the Komodo Dragon, or Ora (Varanus komodoensis). Oras were first protected by law in 1915 by the Sultan of Bima, just three years after Peter Ouwens first described the species to European science. In 1928 the Colonial Dutch Government declared the island of Komodo a wilderness reserve, adding Padar and southern Rinca 10 years later. Today's park spans part of Nusa Tenggara Timur, in the Sunda chain between the major islands of Sumbawa and Flores, comprising the entire range of the Ora, outside of the large and heavily-populated island of Flores: the islands of Komodo, Padar, Rinca, Gili Motang, and all of the tiny adjacent islets. 

Oras can reach ten feet in length. A couple of other monitor species can equal this, but those are more slender, long-tailed animals well under half the weight of an Ora of similar length. Like practically all members of their family, Oras are carnivores. Opportunistic generalists, they eat carrion, small prey like rodents and snakes, and kill mammals as large as Timor Deer (Cervus timorensis floriensis), Timor Pigs (Sus scrofa vittatus) and Water Buffalo (Bubalis bubalis). All three of these large herbivores were introduced by humans: the pigs probably long ago, the other two in the 19th century, the buffalo by Floresians and the Deer by the Sultan of Bima, from the island of Sumbawa. The preeminent Komodo Dragon scholar Walter Auffenberg surmised that the species originally evolved to feed on the dwarf elephants Stegodon sondaari and S. florensis that inhabited the region until a few thousand years ago, and transferred their techniques to the large newcomers. As far as I know, reports of Oras preying on the wild horses (Equus caballus) that the Sultan of Bima introduced to Rinca have yet to be confirmed.
Auffenberg also credited Oras with the ability to kill prey with a septic bite, a story that has only recently been debunked. Controversy continues to swarm about the nature of their bite, which contains complex toxic proteins capable of inducing hypothermia, paralysis, haemophilia and loss of consciousness. Oras are capable of stuffing themselves with as much as 50% of their own weight. Such a meal can sustain them for over a month. Usually everything but the hair and bones are digested, ultimately leaving nothing but a dry fecal pellet. 
  The lizard I'm befriending in the photo above is a tame one at the Bali Reptile Park. It, like practically all captive Oras, is descended from a few lizards captured on Flores in the 1980s. These lizards are distinct from those of other islands, where they lack the bluish tones. It seems like genetic transmission across the narrow strait between Flores and Rinca has been minimal, presumably due to the treacherous currents there. In the late 1980s, the population on Padar vanished after a wildfire scorched most of the island, and it's likely that the surviving Oras, unable to find prey, swam to nearby Rinca. Since the fire, Timor Deer have recolonized the island, and park officials are considering translocating Oras back to Padar, a notion I object to, since the lizards are arboreal for the first two years of their lives. Since there are not yet many large trees on the island, any experimental introductees would likely eat their offspring faster than they could produce them.

The island of Flores is well populated with humans, although Labuan Bajo is the only town on the western end of any size. The Oras on this island have been persecuted as livestock-killers for centuries, and they persist only in a few rugged areas. In what numbers is anybody's guess, but it's likely that between 1,000 and 2,000 individuals survive on the island. At the moment, probably around 1,200 call Komodo home, while 1,000 are shared between Rinca and Nusa Kode. Fewer than 100 live on the single arid cone of Gili Motang. 
  Oras can live as long as 50 years, and they become sexually mature at 4-5 years of age. Beginning in June, males, who outnumber females by more than 3:1, become more active, attempting to domineer and intimidate other males, while seeking, courting and eventually copulating with females. 
The courtship season lasts through August, and eggs are usually laid a couple of weeks after fertilization. More often than not, the female selects an orange-footed Scrubfowl (Megapodius reinwardt) mound as a nesting site. Like other members of their family, these birds construct huge piles of sand mixed with leaf litter where their buried eggs are incubated by the compost. The female Ora guards her 12-30 eggs for four months, until they hatch. From that time on, they're on their own. 
Komodo National Park is mostly uninhabited by humans; only four villages occur within its boundaries. Komodo Village (Kampung Komodo) is by far the largest of these, with around 1,600 inhabitants. Small human settlements have come and gone over the centuries, but Komodo Village is the biggest the island has known. It was established early in the 20th century by the Sultan of Bima as a penal colony. Bugis fisherman from Sulawesi, drawn to the region's rich fisheries, also settled here (the Bugis have a long tradition of seamanship; in past centuries, the region's most feared pirates were of this ethnicity, and European sailors returned with terrifying stories of them, giving rise to the term “boogie-man”). 

More recently, ethnic Manggarai from Flores have joined the population, which has exploded from a mere 30 citizens in the 1920s. Culturally, Komodo Village is still closer to Bima than anywhere else. It is situated across the bay from Loh Liang, the Park's main ranger station and visitor's center. On the island of Rinca, two villages, Rinca (settled near the turn of the 20th century) and Kerora (settled in 1955), are each less than half the size of Komodo. A small eponymous village on the island of Papagaran completes the list of human habitation, save a handful of research and ranger stations with part-time populations. 
Each village boasts an elementary school, but college-preparatory studies are out of reach. The communities are dependent on fishing, which supplies 97% of village income. Squid, shrimp and milkfish (Chanos chanos) are the most important quarry, but mantis shrimp, sea cucumber, abalone, and various groupers, tuna, sharks and billfish have historically been sought after. Most farming is subsistence-level only, although some produce is sold in markets, along with some wild products like Tamarind (Tamarindus indica), a dominant tree on the islands. A growing number of Komodo Village artisans make their living selling woodcarvings and other crafts to tourists at Loh Liang.
In 1995, officials of Komodo National Park, along with the Indonesian Government, local municipalities and experts from the Nature Conservancy, began hammering out a 25-year management plan for the Park. This plan, designed to cope with expanding human populations, both permanent and transient (especially tourists) while maintaining a viable Ora population and a healthy Marine environment, began implementation in 2001. Thoughtful and practical though it is, the plan has met with controversy in Indonesia as well as abroad. It has been inaccurately criticized by anti-conservation activists in the USA as a plan foisted on the Indonesians by western conservationists. One of the most outrageous smears appeared in the Wall Street Journal article When Good Lizards Go Bad, where Yaroslav Trofimov manufactured a preposterous theory that the plan had changed the behavior of Oras, causing them to kill Humans in the park.

Today, the Oras are in no imminent danger. Their populations are currently declining, but not to a worrying degree. Deer, pigs and other dragon food abounds on Komodo and Rinca, but an unchecked human explosion will doom the dragons. More urgent is the situation beneath the ocean's surface. This part of Nusa Tenggara is especially rich. Its vast coral reefs contain crucial spawning grounds for Napoleon Wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) and other fish of great economic importance to the region. The Management Plan bans a number of destructive and effective fishing methods, including explosives and poisons, reef gleaning, long lines, gill nets and demersal (bottom) traps, effectively restricting fishermen to using hook and line and traditional light nets. It also imposes catch limits and denies access to grouper and Napoleon Wrasse spawning grounds. A long list of fish species is proscribed, as are all marine invertebrates except squid. Some rather Draconian measures have been taken on land. All immigration has been disallowed; not even marriage confers a right to residency in the Park. Dogs and cats have been banned, as have most other domestic animals, save goats and chickens, and restrictions have been put on use of fresh water. The gathering of firewood is no longer allowed and the laws prohibiting hunting of deer, pigs and buffalo are being strictly enforced. It's the fishing restrictions, though, that have impacted the already struggling villagers the hardest, and they've caused considerable anger. There have been shootouts between rangers and fishermen, resulting in several deaths. Balancing the needs of the burgeoning villagers and those of the finite ecosystem is difficult, and the fact that it's being imposed from outside causes real resentments.
For powerful predators adapted to kill large prey, it's surprising how rare Ora attacks on humans are. The earliest documented fatality was a 1931 attempted predation on a 14-year-old boy, whose adult companions frightened the lizard off, but couldn't prevent his death of blood loss. Some years later, an adult deer hunter who fell ill was left behind by his companions. They returned to find his lifeless remains partially eaten by Oras. A similar case in 1974 was the 78-year old Swiss Baron Rudolf von Rading, who, after climbing ¾ of the way to a summit, decided against completing the hike, urging his friends to to go on without him. They returned to the appointed meeting place to find nothing but his camera and spectacles. The marker above commemorates this spot (with camera and glasses placed for effect). Another death took place a year ago in June of 2008, when a 9-year-old boy named Mansur had the rudest possible interruption of a backwoods bathroom break. As in the 1931 case, the Ora was chased off by adults, but the boy died quickly of blood loss. Park officials attempted, but were unable to track the animal down. This was the fourth confirmed death (all occurred on Komodo Island) from an Ora, although there have been many non-lethal bites and unsubstantiated stories (many from Flores), a good portion of which are probably true. The fact is that Komodo Dragons are, and always have been a danger to people where the two coexist, but only a modest one. Their behavior towards humans has not changed; as always, an attack is unlikely but unpredictable. 
Mr. Trofimov's WSJ article made much of a supposed ancient and mystical Komodo Village rite where Oras were fed to keep them from attacking. No such custom ever existed. It is true that legend considers humans and Oras relatives (actually more like cousins than reincarnations of ancestors), but the ritual described in the article most likely refers to on-site gutting of poached deer, for the Management Plan prohibits no other type of dragon feeding. The goat sacrifices that Trofimov mentions were staged for tourists in exchange for cash at the site in the photos above. The top pic shows the observation platform. Behind it is the famous commode, for which the island was named (okay, that's a fabrication of my own). The lower photo shows the view from the platform. The concrete ring was a pool built to attract Oras. A goat was staked in the clearing behind this pool for the benefit of park visitors. These sacrifices were discontinued in the '90s as a result of changing attitudes and the basic understanding that teaching Oras to associate humans with feeding is a pretty lame idea. 
  The dilemma of Komodo village is a microcosm of what we all face. A century and a half ago, Alfred Russell Wallace traveled this region and marveled at the simplicity of island ecology. In that simplicity, he could see how organisms change and adapt, just as Darwin did in the Galápagos. In the same way it seems painfully obvious to us how limited the good citizens of Kampung Komodo are by the resources of their little island.
(This post is a revised version of my original refutation of Yaroslav Trofimov's WSJ, which I originally posted in September, 2008.)

upper: SPARRING KOMODO DRAGONS (2009) oil on canvas 48" x 72"
image #5: photo taken by Steve Derham at Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. All other photos taken by CPBvK at or near Komodo Nat'l Park, Indonesia

Sunday, December 18, 2016


We've heard a lot lately about regulations, and unless I miss my guess, we can expect to hear a lot more over the next year. With that in mind, it's probably a good idea to think about what exactly we mean by regulations and their various benefits and liabilities.

Of course, regulations were originally designed to keep our individual pursuits of happiness from conflicting with the happiness of others, and that's still their purpose. We all know the old saw "My right to swing my fist ends where your nose starts," and regulations should serve to keep fists and noses separate. As a society's living standard and population increase, fists and noses come into closer proximity, meaning that regulations need to be periodically revised to keep up. But the narrative we hear most about regulations is that they're obstacles that keep market forces from doing the beneficial things they do for society. While it's true that in some instances regulations can do that, they pale in comparison to the real enemy of the 'invisible hand' of the marketplace, monopolies. Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism, understood this very well two centuries ago, and what was his prescription for discouraging monopolies? Why government regulation, of course.

While regulations are necessary and can do very good things, that's not to say we should cherish them all. The regulations that affect businesses can be sorted into two piles. The first pile we'll call benevolent regulation. These laws do things like prohibiting a business from dumping waste solvents into the community's drinking water. Antitrust laws would go into this pile as well. Benevolent regulations protect a society's common resources like water, air and biodiversity. They defend citizens from powerful interests like governments and corporations. They look out for the interests of future generations against entities that would conspire to steal from them.

The second pile we can call "red tape" regulations. Most of us are familiar with these and have felt the frustration they engender. They're the sort of hoops a business has to go through that have no readily discernible function. Reasonable people will argue about which pile certain laws belong in, but we can all agree that both piles exist.

It's easy to understand the function of benevolent regulation, but red tape has an important function as well. It's a very real obstacle to that individual entrepreneur who's trying to bring a better mousetrap to market, and keeps him or her from being able to compete on level ground with Amalgamated Mousetrap Corporation.

It's not a terrible oversimplification to say that regulations in our first pile protect the weak from the powerful while the ones in the second pile protect the powerful from the weak. That's exactly why I'm skeptical when the powers that be say they're going to cut regulations. I have a pretty good idea which pile they have their eye on.
illustration:  "TRASH BIRDS--ASIAN PIED HARRIER & AFRICAN PIED WAGTAILS" (2016) India and sepia ink washes on Arches paper  19" x 24"

Thursday, November 19, 2015


On November 19, 1915, thirty-six-year-old Joe Hill was shot dead by a firing squad at the Utah State Prison, on a site in what is now Sugarhouse Park in Salt Lake City.
A troubadour of the robber-baron age, Hill was born Joel
Hägglund. He left his native Sweden in 1902 for the US, working his away across the country to California, where he joined the Industrial Workers of the World, or “Wobblies.” He became active in organizing workers and served as strike secretary for the IWW in San Pedro. He rose to prominence writing satirical songs for the Wobblies, such as “Casey Jones the Union Scab,” “The Rebel Girl,” inspired by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and “The Preacher and the Slave,” whose refrain is still remembered today:

You will eat bye and bye in that glorious land in the sky
Work and pray, live on hay, you'll get pie in the sky when you die.

Working on the California docks, he befriended Otto Appelquist, also a Swedish immigrant. In the summer of 1913, he followed Appelquist to his adopted home of Salt Lake City, where he found work at the Silver King Mine in Park City.
The following winter, on January 14, 1914, the Salt Lake City police arrested Joe Hill for the murder of a grocer and former policeman and his teenage son. Four nights earlier, two men masked in red bandanas had entered the store of John G. Morrison and shot him and his son Arling dead. Hill had been treated that night for a gunshot wound, one of five such injuries in the city. He claimed that it had been received in an altercation over a woman, but he refused to say any more or identify the parties. Police found a red bandana in Hill's room. Thirteen-year-old Merlin Morrison, witness to the murder of his father and brother, said that Hill resembled one of the killers. The prosecution was not able to suggest a motive or place Hill at the crime scene, but rested their case solely on circumstantial evidence. In his instructions to the jury, Judge Morris Ritchie called circumstantial evidence “the proof of such facts and circumstances connected with or surrounding the...crime,...and if these facts and circumstances, when considered all together, are sufficient to satisfy the...jury of the guilt of the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt, then such evidence is sufficient to authorize a conviction.”
Hill's own behavior was not helpful to his case. He fired his attorney and argued with the judge over his right to represent himself. His prominence with the IWW was a liability, and the two major powers in Salt Lake City at the time, Kennecott Copper and the LDS Church, wanted to see him convicted. After what can only be seen in hindsight as an unfair trial, Hill was found guilty.
For nearly a century, the question of Hill's guilt has been an open one. In his 2011 biography, “The Man Who Never Died,” William M. Adler further weakened the prosecution's best evidence with documents pointing to Otto Appelquist and his former fianc
ée Hilda Erickson as Hill's mystery shooter and the object of the dispute, respectively. Adler also produced evidence that the Morrisons were killed by career criminal Magnus Olson, alias Frank Z. Wilson, whom police had arrested earlier in the case, but transferred to Nevada authorities to face a lesser charge.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015


In honor of the wintery nip the weather is finally starting to carry, I'm recycling an old post from September 2006.
The temperature in Salt Lake City has yet to drop below 50ºF, but signs of summer's senescence increase daily. Bird migration is well underway, and our least cold-tolerant summer residents, the nighthawks and hummingbirds, are gone. As the sun's increasingly oblique rays approach the horizon, the red and yellow maples and aspens on the surrounding hillsides cast an orange evening glow into the valley. I wasn't struck hard with an awareness of autumn, though, until last night, when I joined a friend for drinks shortly before dusk. As we entered the club, the assiduous squawking of a thousand Common Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) met us from the interior of an overhead billboard. It's a sound that I know well, and associate strongly with cold weather. For many years, I was obsessed with hawking starlings with Cooper's Hawks (Accipiter cooperi) and, for one season, with a Merlin (Falco columbarius). A major benefit of flocking is evident when watching a raptor chase a group of starlings or other birds. Upon sensing danger, the flock condenses to a nearly solid mass, and appears to move with a singular intention. The skill with which flocking birds can cue each other and fly as one seems supernatural. Unable to snatch an individual from the fluttering swarm, the pursuing predator is reduced to taking swipes at the entity until one bird loses its head and its timing and finds itself alone and vulnerable. The effort needed to take a starling from a flock exceeds that expended on a single bird by a sizable factor.

Starlings aren't alone in their propensity to get close in the winter, in fact, winter flocking is more the rule than the exception. Starlings' fellow immigrants, the English Sparrows (Passer domesticus), are forming similar coalitions in the city, and soon they'll be joined by a host of other flocking species. In summer, Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) are uncommon and inconspicuous solitary birds here, occasionally glimpsed as a single bird flits through high-elevation undergrowth. As soon as cold weather hits, though, flocks of the fat little birds with their executioners' hoods will be ubiquitous throughout the region. In fact, it seems that on the first really cold morning of each year I see my first junco flock, as if winter were dragged right into the yard on their white-edged tails. In my three Pinedale Anticline posts, I described the impressive winter flocking of Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) and Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris). Clearly, flocks are less susceptible to predation, but why do birds concentrate only in the winter, when food tends to be scarce, and competition more of a concern? Since the days of Aristotle, observers have pondered this question. In the thirteenth century, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen asserted that flocks protected birds from predators on their long migrations. Other writers have pointed to birds like robins (Turdus spp.) and waxwings (Bombycilla spp.) that feed largely on berries in the winter. These foods are abundant where they occur, but can be difficult to locate. A large group of birds stands a better chance of discovering a large lode capable of feeding the whole. Flocks have an advantage not only over predators, but over competitors, as well. Chickadees (Poecile spp.) and other small birds show far more aggression to single conspecifics than to groups.
But birds aren't the only creatures that show this behavior. In my Pinedale Anticline posts, I also discussed winter herding of Pronghorns (Antilocapra americana), which is similar to the behavior of cervids. Even tropical deer like the Indonesian Sambar (Cervus timorensis) congregate in small groups during the boreal summer, which is the dry season there—the season when food is most scarce. When I painted The First Phalanx (above), I had read that troops of Mandrills (Mandrillus sphinx) periodically coalesce into large herds led by a coalition of alpha males. I naïvely painted four big males surrounded in a riot of Central African blooms, unaware that these herds form only in the dry season, when such flowering isn't likely. Five years later, I tracked a large herd of the closely related Drill (M. leucophaeus), an easy job, since their fastidious searching of the dry-season forest floor gave the impression that a Zamboni had driven through the jungle. It makes sense that these large monkeys might find it easier to discover populations of mushrooms and small edible animals in large groups, which are also more intimidating to Leopards (Panthera pardus).

All of these benefits, and surely others as well, accrue to the flocks, herds, murders and gaggles, but I think to better understand the problem, the question should be turned on its head. It seems to me that most animals that congregate in winter are better described as gregarious animals that leave the pack to breed. Competition for food may be more severe in the winter or dry season, but even modest competition is too much for inexperienced juveniles. Most creatures are born during the season when foraging is the easiest, but even so, for many species the protection of the flock is less of a benefit than a liability during this crucial period.
upper: WORKING THE FLOCK--MERLIN & STARLINGS (1988) acrylic 30" x 20"
lower: THE FIRST PHALANX--MANDRILLS (1990) acrylic 20" x 30"

Monday, August 03, 2015


About his piece "Walrus Souvenir," the artist Andrew Krasnow says:

"As president of the United States, George W. Bush pushed for exploratory drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. More concerned with the need for energy than the harm it might cause Walrus habitat, President Bush argued for drilling because there were 'scientific uncertainties' around climate change. For the Walrus, however, the episode may harken back to President Chester A. Arthur (ironically known as 'The Walrus,' for sporting the manly mustache popular at the time) who entered office as the Walrus was on the verge of being hunted into extinction for the oil in its flesh that fueled gas lamps.

Walrus Souvenir is a meditation on the uncertain future for the Walrus and for the natural world when confronted with the priorities of Man. As a memento made from Man's own skin, it suggests that the product of his handiwork may one day be mass extinction, not only for the Walrus and for other animal and plant species, but 'humanity' itself, as their fate is closely tied with ours. As John Lennon sang, 'I am he/ as you are he/ as you are me/ and we are all together...I am the Walrus'"

Friday, June 05, 2015


On May 30, 2015 I was hiking in the Wasatch Mountains in Salt Lake County, Utah, just after dark at a elevation of about 7,000 feet, when I observed two Poorwills (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) perched about half a meter apart on the ground. I watched the two birds in my headlamp beam through binoculars from a distance of about 10 meters. After some 30 seconds, bird B fluttered into the air briefly and landed, increasing its distance from bird A by about two meters. Ten or fifteen seconds later, bird A flew towards bird B, restoring the distance between the birds to roughly what it was before. About 45 seconds later, bird B flew away. some 10 seconds later, bird A also took off in the same direction. It wasn't until the next morning, when I looked at the photographs I took of the birds, that I was able to tell that both birds were males. In the photographs where both birds were perched close together, they were both clearly flaring their white throat patches and displaying them. Bird B also appeared to be spreading its tail, displaying the white patches there. Bird A's tail was obscured in these photos. I inferred this interaction to be a territorial rivalry, but the actual nature of the display is not clear. I was unable to discern any other behavior such as head-bobbing, but viewing conditions were far from ideal.  

I have not seen nor heard of Poorwills displaying in this manner. I sent this photograph to R. Mark Brigham, a Poorwill expert at the University of Regina, who told me he had never seen Poorwills do this either.
These birds are very interesting for a number of reasons, most famously for their manner of surviving winter's cold temperatures and lack of food resources. Hibernation is a common way for animals to deal with winter. Many birds, bats and even insects opt instead for seasonal migration, exploiting distant habitats during different seasons. A few, like the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) and our friend the Poorwill use a combination of the two. Poorwills, relatives of Nightjars, breed in arid parts of western North America from southern Canada into northern Mexico; northern individuals seem to winter in the desert southwest. A number of bird species use daily torpor to minimize energy loss during cool nights or brief bad weather. Members of three related orders, the goatsuckers, hummingbirds and possibly the swifts, all show some abilities at metabolic adjustment, but none to the degree of the little Poorwill, which, in addition to its natural tendencies toward torpor, feeds heavily on beetles, rich in polyunsaturated fats, which remain liquid and metabolically 
available at low temperatures.I've watched Poorwills feed on darkling beetles on the ground, and have noticed that medium-sized ground beetles are usually common where there is a dense population of Poorwills.In the laboratory, these birds have been observed sustaining periods of torpor for over 80 days, and in the wild as long as 25 days. A shallow shelter, open to the southern sun is selected: a patch of cactus or rock niche to which the bird develops substantial fidelity. After sundown, the torpid Poorwill's body temperature begins to fall, until the ambient temperature reaches 5.5°C, an apparent optimum hibernating level which the bird tries to maintain. Solar radiation raises the body temperature daily, presumably allowing the option to forage during warm nights. I know of no human witnesses to a Poorwill rousing from torpor in the wild, but I imagine the bird backing out of his shelter to fully bask in the final evening rays, periodically flapping his wings to elevate his body temperature. It's not known how severe a winter these birds can survive, but a sufficient winter insect population, rather than temperature, is probably the limiting factor.

(top): Photo by cpbvk
(center): Poorwill field sketch; pencil 11" x 8.5"
(lower): REANIMATION: POORWILL (2012) acrylic 30" x 20"

Friday, February 27, 2015


This great optical illusion has been all over the internet over the past day, but in most cases people are asking the wrong questions about it. What's interesting is not whether you see a white dress with gold bands or a blue dress with black bands—it can appear either way to most of us. If you haven't seen both color versions of the same photo, keep checking back at the image, it's amazing to see the shift once it happens, and well worth the effort. I've been working with color professionally for nearly 30 years, and this is the first time I've been confronted with this illusion.

So what's going on here? During infancy our brains learn how to make sense of the confusing signals picked up by our senses, including sight. The wavelengths of light that enter our pupils are affected by many things, and don't necessarily represent the actual hue of an object very accurately. For example, the light bouncing off of a bird in a leafy tree will be tinted green by having also been bounced off of leaves. This is particularly easy to see with white objects. A white bird in that tree will appear quite green, although we will understand upon seeing it that it's actually white. Over the years, people have come to understand the way the brain interprets true colors from the false signals it's presented with, and codified it in the system of color theory.

One of the principles of color theory is the phenomenon of "simultaneous contrast," where one color seems to push an adjacent color towards its complement, or inverse color (blue, for instance, gives adjacent colors an orange tint and vice-versa). A well-known example of this principle happens when you stare at a red dot for a minute or two, then transfer your gaze to a white wall...a green dot seems to appear, the complementary of red. 

 The actual dress is blue with black bands, and these pigments are represented in the photo in question with various shades of two complementary colors: a purplish-blue-gray and greenish-golden-brown (above). The primary colors of light (blue, red and green) are different from those of pigment (blue, red and yellow), so pairs of complementary colors on a computer monitor differ somewhat from those on a painting; this illusion would not work with a printed version of the photo. The brain can translate the gold-brown and blue-gray bands correctly as the black and blue of the real dress. In that case, simultaneous contrast makes the blue look deeper than the actual colors in the photo. The brain can also assume the purplish-blue is color being reflected off of a white surface. This color, a sort of dirty light ultramarine, is very commonly reflected off of white surfaces that aren't illuminated brightly, which is probably why the the brain is so quick to make this mistake. In this case, it presumes that blue gray is really white, and that the golden-brown hues represent actual pigment, and simultaneous contrast intensifies them to make gold.

That's basically what's happening here, but it doesn't explain why the two colors don't enhance each other. Normally, when you set two complementary colors like these next to one another they exaggerate each other's brilliance, but in this case our brain seems to know that the colors in one set of bands are real and those in the other set illusory, because only one color or the other pushes the hue of its complementary bands to a more extreme version of itself. This is the strangest part of this illusion, and the one that's hardest for me to explain. It probably involves some assumptions our brain makes based on what we know about dresses and shapes, but more than anything, I think there's an odd (and unknown to me) principle of color theory of light that doesn't apply to pigment at work. I'm interested to hear any explanations you might have.