Color signal information content and the eye of the beholder: A case study in the rhesus macaque

James P. Higham, Lauren J.N. Brent, Constance Dubuc, Amanda K. Accamando, Antje Engelhardt, Melissa S. Gerald, Michael Heistermann, Martin Stevens

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Animal coloration has provided many classical examples of both natural and sexual selection. Methods to study color signals range from human assessment to models of receiver vision, with objective measurements commonly involving spectrometry or digital photography. However, signal assessment by a receiver is not objective but linked to receiver perception. Here, we use standardized digital photographs of female rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) face and hindquarter regions, combined with estimates of the timing of the female fertile phase, to assess how color varies with respect to this timing. We compare objective color measures (camera sensor responses) with models of rhesus vision (retinal receptor stimulation and visual discriminability). Due to differences in spectral separation between camera sensors and rhesus receptors, camera measures overestimated color variation and underestimated luminance variation compared with rhesus macaques. Consequently, objective digital camera measurements can produce statistically significant relationships that are probably undetectable to rhesus macaques, and hence biologically irrelevant, while missing variation in the measure that may be relevant. Discrimination modeling provided results that were most meaningful (as they were directly related to receiver perception) and were easiest to relate to underlying physiology. Further, this gave new insight into the function of such signals, revealing perceptually salient signal luminance changes outside of the fertile phase that could potentially enhance paternity confusion. Our study demonstrates how, even for species with similar visual systems to humans, models of vision may provide more accurate and meaningful information on the form and function of visual signals than objective color measures do.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)739-746
    Number of pages8
    JournalBehavioral Ecology
    Issue number4
    StatePublished - Apr 2010


    • color signaling
    • communication
    • receiver perception
    • visual discrimination threshold modeling

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
    • Animal Science and Zoology


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