The biology of color

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Science  04 Aug 2017:
Vol. 357, Issue 6350, eaan0221
DOI: 10.1126/science.aan0221

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In living color

Animals live in a colorful world, but we rarely stop to think about how this color is produced and perceived, or how it evolved. Cuthill et al. review how color is used for social signals between individual animals and how it affects interactions with parasites, predators, and the physical environment. New approaches are elucidating aspects of animal coloration, from the requirements for complex cognition and perception mechanisms to the evolutionary dynamics surrounding its development and diversification.

Science, this issue p. eaan0221

Structured Abstract


The interdisciplinary field of animal coloration is growing rapidly, spanning questions about the diverse ways that animals use pigments and structures to generate color, the underlying genetics and epigenetics, the perception of color, how color information is integrated with information from other senses, and general principles underlying color’s evolution and function. People working in the field appreciate linkages between these parallel lines of enquiry, but outsiders need the easily navigable roadmap that we provide here.


In the past 20 years, the field of animal coloration research has been propelled forward by technological advances that include spectrophotometry, digital imaging, computational neuroscience, innovative laboratory and field studies, and large-scale comparative analyses, which are allowing new questions to be asked. For example, we can now pose questions about the evolution of camouflage based on what a prey’s main predator can see, and we can start to appreciate that gene changes underlying color production have occurred in parallel in unrelated species. Knowledge of the production, perception, and evolutionary function of coloration is poised to make contributions to areas as diverse as medicine, security, clothing, and the military, but we need to take stock before moving forward.


Here, a group of evolutionary biologists, behavioral ecologists, psychologists, optical physicists, visual physiologists, geneticists, and anthropologists review this diverse area of science, daunting to the outsider, and set out what we believe are the key questions for the future. These are how nanoscale structures are used to manipulate light; how dynamic changes in coloration occur on different time scales; the genetics of coloration (including key innovations and the extent of parallel changes in different lineages); alternative perceptions of color by different species (including wavelengths that we cannot see, such as ultraviolet); how color, pattern, and motion interact; and how color works together with other modalities, especially odor. From an adaptive standpoint, color can serve several functions, and the resulting patterns frequently represent a trade-off among different evolutionary drivers, some of which are nonvisual (e.g., photoprotection). These trade-offs can vary between individuals within the same population, and color can be altered strategically on different time scales to serve different purposes. Lastly, interspecific differences in coloration, sometimes even observable in the fossil record, give insights into trait evolution. The biology of color is a field that typifies modern research: curiosity-led, technology-driven, multilevel, interdisciplinary, and integrative.

Spectacular changes to color and morphology in a cuttlefish.

Color can conceal or reveal. The giant Australian cuttlefish (Sepia apama) alters the relative size of its pigment-bearing chromatophores and warps its muscular skin to switch between camouflage mode (top) and communication mode (bottom) in under a second.

Photos: © Justin Marshall


Coloration mediates the relationship between an organism and its environment in important ways, including social signaling, antipredator defenses, parasitic exploitation, thermoregulation, and protection from ultraviolet light, microbes, and abrasion. Methodological breakthroughs are accelerating knowledge of the processes underlying both the production of animal coloration and its perception, experiments are advancing understanding of mechanism and function, and measurements of color collected noninvasively and at a global scale are opening windows to evolutionary dynamics more generally. Here we provide a roadmap of these advances and identify hitherto unrecognized challenges for this multi- and interdisciplinary field.

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