Horseflies (Tabanidae) are polarotactic, being attracted to linearly polarized light when searching for water or host animals. Although it is well known that horseflies prefer sunlit dark and strongly polarizing hosts, the reason for this preference is unknown. According to our hypothesis, horseflies use their polarization sensitivity to look for targets with higher degrees of polarization in their optical environment, which as a result facilitates detection of sunlit dark host animals. In this work, we tested this hypothesis. Using imaging polarimetry, we measured the reflection–polarization patterns of a dark host model and a living black cow under various illumination conditions and with different vegetation backgrounds. We focused on the intensity and degree of polarization of light originating from dark patches of vegetation and the dark model/cow. We compared the chances of successful host selection based on either intensity or degree of polarization of the target and the combination of these two parameters. We show that the use of polarization information considerably increases the effectiveness of visual detection of dark host animals even in front of sunny–shady–patchy vegetation. Differentiation between a weakly polarizing, shady (dark) vegetation region and a sunlit, highly polarizing dark host animal increases the efficiency of host search by horseflies.
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