Studying primate color: Towards visual system-dependent methods

Martin Stevens, Mary Caswell Stoddard, James P. Higham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

107 Scopus citations


Primates exhibit a striking diversity of colors and patterns in their pelage and skin markings, used in functions as diverse as camouflage to sexual signaling. In studying primate colors, it is important to adopt approaches not based on human assessment wherever possible, and that preferably take account of the visual system of the appropriate receiver(s). Here, we outline some of the main techniques for recording the colors exhibited and encountered by primates, including the use of digital photography and reflectance spectrometry. We go on to discuss the main approaches for analyzing the data obtained, including those not linked to a particular visual system, such as direct analyses of reflectance spectra. We argue that researchers should strive for analyses based on the visual system of the relevant receiver, and outline some of the main modeling approaches that can be used, such as color space and discrimination threshold modeling. By analyzing color measures with respect to specific visual systems, field studies can link behavioral ecology to the visual and cognitive sciences, and move toward descriptions of signal information content that incorporate elements of receiver psychology. This in turn should lead to a greater understanding of the detection and interpretation of signals by receivers, and hence their likely use in decision making.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)893-917
Number of pages25
JournalInternational Journal of Primatology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

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


  • Color measurement
  • Coloration
  • Photography
  • Primates
  • Reflectance


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