From spectral information to animal colour vision: experiments and concepts

Almut Kelber, Daniel Osorio


Many animals use the spectral distribution of light to guide behaviour, but whether they have colour vision has been debated for over a century. Our strong subjective experience of colour and the fact that human vision is the paradigm for colour science inevitably raises the question of how we compare with other species. This article outlines four grades of ‘colour vision’ that can be related to the behavioural uses of spectral information, and perhaps to the underlying mechanisms. In the first, even without an (image-forming) eye, simple organisms can compare photoreceptor signals to locate a desired light environment. At the next grade, chromatic mechanisms along with spatial vision guide innate preferences for objects such as food or mates; this is sometimes described as wavelength-specific behaviour. Here, we compare the capabilities of di- and trichromatic vision, and ask why some animals have more than three spectral types of receptors. Behaviours guided by innate preferences are then distinguished from a grade that allows learning, in part because the ability to learn an arbitrary colour is evidence for a neural representation of colour. The fourth grade concerns colour appearance rather than colour difference: for instance, the distinction between hue and saturation, and colour categorization. These higher-level phenomena are essential to human colour perception but poorly known in animals, and we suggest how they can be studied. Finally, we observe that awareness of colour and colour qualia cannot be easily tested in animals.


  • 1 Blindsight refers to the ‘residual vision’ after lesion of the visual cortex while leaving other visual pathways intact.

  • 2 The term wavelength-specific behaviour is ambiguous because it is also applied to behaviour guided by achromatic mechanisms, which normally involve only one type of receptor (Menzel 1979).

    • Received November 20, 2009.
    • Accepted January 27, 2010.
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