Visionary Research: Scientists Delve into the Evolution of Color Vision in Primates

By Travis, John | Science News, October 11, 2003 | Go to article overview

Visionary Research: Scientists Delve into the Evolution of Color Vision in Primates


Travis, John, Science News


The next time you appreciate the beauty of a rainbow or the subtle hues of an impressionist masterpiece, you'll be taking advantage of the human brain's palette of an estimated 2.3 million colors. Why do people and many nonhuman primate species have the capability to distinguish so many hues? How did it benefit our ancestors to evolve this trait? After all, most mammals seem to do just fine with a less-discerning color vision. Dogs, cats, and many other familiar mammals, for example, can't discriminate between reds and greens.

Perhaps the first person to address this issue was 19th-century biologist Grant Allen. His theory, developed while he was a professor in Jamaica, was that primates need their superior color vision to find fruits hidden among green leaves. The dazzling red, orange, and crimson colors of tropical fruits inspired his hypothesis, which he put forth in an 1879 book, The Colour Sense: Its Origin and Development.

Allen's book contained many flaws--he didn't realize that lemurs, which are primates in Madagascar, have the more limited form of mammalian color vision, for example--but his theory left its imprint. "His reasoning was faulty, but nevertheless it was such an intuitive idea that it's been reiterated ever since" says Nathaniel Dominy of Yale University.

In a new wrinkle on this evolutionary mystery, Dominy and Peter Lucas of the University of Hong Kong have recently challenged the dogma that trichromacy--the scientific name for the form of color vision people have--evolved for detecting ripe fruits. They argue that this color vision instead helped our primate ancestors find tender red leaves bursting with nutritional value.

Furthermore, other scientists have found some surprising possible consequences of the evolution of trichromacy. Several research teams have recently reported genetic evidence that human ancestors' sense of smell began to deteriorate at about the same time that they developed trichromacy. Indeed, that visual upgrade may explain why people and Old World primates have lost much of their response to pheromones, the odorless, airborne chemicals that drive the reproductive behaviors of many mammals.

"Maybe there's a trade-off," speculates Dominy. "As your visual system improves, maybe your olfactory system declines."

All this recent research, notes Daniel Osorio of University of Sussex in Brighton, England, "makes us ask, 'What do we see color for?'"

SEEING RED All vertebrates, from fish to people, see colors by using cells in the eyes called cones. Within the cones are light-sensitive pigments known as opsins. The pigments in different cones can vary in the wavelength of light to which they respond. An animal's brain distinguishes among colors by comparing the signals it receives from cones containing different opsins.

Take birds. Most have opsins sensitive to ultraviolet, blue, green, and red light, enabling them to recognize an unusually large range of wavelengths. In contrast, most mammals have just two opsins, one sensitive to blue and the other one to green. This form of color vision is known as dichromacy.

From this bird-mammal distinction, scientists have concluded that the evolutionary ancestor common to both had four distinct opsins. Early mammals then lost two of them, probably with little ill effect because these creatures were nocturnal and had a limited need to discern colors.

When it comes to their color vision, people fall between birds and most mammals. People generally have three opsins, which are sensitive to blue, green, and red. In fact, most of the primates that evolved in Africa and Asia, including the great apes and chimpanzees, are fully trichromatic. In contrast, most New World primates, such as the tamarins and marmosets of South America, are dichromatic, having just blue-sensitive and green-sensitive opsins.

People and birds don't have the same gene for their red-sensitive opsin.

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