Relative advantages of dichromatic and trichromatic color vision in camouflage breaking


There is a huge diversity in visual systems and color discrimination abilities, thought to stem from an animal’s ecology and life history. Many primate species maintain a polymorphism in color vision, whereby most individuals are dichromats but some females are trichromats, implying that selection sometimes favors dichromatic vision. Detecting camouflaged prey is thought to be a task where dichromatic individuals could have an advantage. However, previous work either has not been able to disentangle camouflage detection from other ecological or social explanations, or did not use biologically relevant cryptic stimuli to test this hypothesis under controlled conditions. Here, we used online ‘citizen science’ games to test how quickly humans could detect cryptic birds (incubating nightjars) and eggs (of nightjars, plovers and coursers) under trichromatic and simulated dichromatic viewing conditions. Trichromats had an overall advantage, although there were significant differences in performance between viewing conditions. When searching for consistently shaped and patterned adult nightjars, simulated dichromats were more heavily influenced by the degree of pattern difference than were trichromats, and were poorer at detecting prey with inferior pattern and luminance camouflage. When searching for clutches of eggs – which were more variable in appearance and shape than the adult nightjars – the simulated dichromats learnt to detect the clutches faster, but were less sensitive to subtle luminance differences. These results suggest there are substantial differences in the cues available under viewing conditions that simulate different receptor types, and that these interact with the scene in complex ways to affect camouflage breaking.