Color vision drove primates to develop red skin and hair, study finds

May 24, 2007

You might call it a tale of "monkey see, monkey do." Researchers at Ohio University have found that after primates evolved the ability to see red, they began to develop red and orange skin and hair.

Humans, apes and Old World monkeys, such as macaques and leaf monkeys, all have trichromatic vision, which allows these primates to distinguish between blue, green and red colors. Primatologists have disagreed about whether this type of color vision initially evolved to help early primates forage for ripe fruit and young, red leaves among green foliage or evolved to help them select mates.

Now a new study published online this week in American Naturalist by Ohio University researchers Andre Fernandez and Molly Morris rules out an initial advantage for mating and suggests that red-color vision evolved for non-social purposes, possibly foraging. But once developed, trichromaticism drove the evolution of red skin and hair through sexual selection.

Fernandez, the study's lead author, first began to question the strict correlation of food choice and color vision while studying howler monkeys in Costa Rica. He recently compiled data on the color vision, social and sexual habits and red skin and pelage of 203 different primate species.

The researchers then used a phylogenetic tree representing the evolutionary relationships among all the primate species under study to test hypotheses about the order in which the traits of red color vision, gregariousness (highly social behavior) and red coloring evolved. By comparing the traits of individual species in this evolutionary context, Fernandez and Morris could statistically deduce the probability of their ancestors having the same traits, as well if any of the traits were correlated with one another.

They found that the species that could discern red and orange hues were more likely to develop red and orange skin and hair, as well as highly social habits that make it easier to visually compare mates. In fact, the more social the trichromats are, the more red coloring they show.

"Neuroscience research has found some evidence of a perceptual bias for more brilliant colors," said Fernandez, an Ohio University doctoral student. "So, it is reasonable for primates with trichromatic color vision to respond more when they see bright colors."

So while foraging may have initially sparked red color vision, the new ability was likely "recruited" for social purposes.

"It looks like red skin and hair became a sexual preference," said Morris, a fish biologist who studies how physical traits such as coloring evolve through sexual selection. "So while the benefits in terms of eating may not apply anymore, the (red-color) vision in some groups is now relevant in social terms."

Source: Ohio University

Explore further: Lemurs match scent of a friend to sound of her voice

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Sony TVs show high-end color via quantum dot tech

Jan 15, 2013

(Phys.org)—Sony's Bravia LCD TVs, in selected models, have incorporated quantum dot technology to boost sales of these high-end televisions by featuring exceptionally high-end color. The technology is from ...

AndyVision retail robot takes stock and more (w/ Video)

Jul 02, 2012

(Phys.org) -- AndyVision is a robot that walks around a store taking inventory and making sure that customers find what they are looking for—two seemingly simple tasks that for retailers can add up to ...

NHK shows downsized Super Hi-Vision video camera

May 28, 2012

(Phys.org) -- NHK this week placed on exhibit a shoulder-mount camera, developed in cooperation with Hitachi, capable of shooting what NHK calls super high vision (SHV) video in 7680×4320 resolution. ...

Recommended for you

Building better soybeans for a hot, dry, hungry world

15 minutes ago

(Phys.org) —A new study shows that soybean plants can be redesigned to increase crop yields while requiring less water and helping to offset greenhouse gas warming. The study is the first to demonstrate ...

Gene removal could have implications beyond plant science

39 minutes ago

(Phys.org) —For thousands of years humans have been tinkering with plant genetics, even when they didn't realize that is what they were doing, in an effort to make stronger, healthier crops that endured climates better, ...

Lemurs match scent of a friend to sound of her voice

12 hours ago

Humans aren't alone in their ability to match a voice to a face—animals such as dogs, horses, crows and monkeys are able to recognize familiar individuals this way too, a growing body of research shows.

User comments : 0

More news stories

Gene removal could have implications beyond plant science

(Phys.org) —For thousands of years humans have been tinkering with plant genetics, even when they didn't realize that is what they were doing, in an effort to make stronger, healthier crops that endured climates better, ...

Making 'bucky-balls' in spin-out's sights

(Phys.org) —A new Oxford spin-out firm is targeting the difficult challenge of manufacturing fullerenes, known as 'bucky-balls' because of their spherical shape, a type of carbon nanomaterial which, like ...