Journal of Comparative Physiology A

, Volume 183, Issue 5, pp 621-633

First online:

Tetrachromacy, oil droplets and bird plumage colours

  • M. VorobyevAffiliated withSechenov Institute of Evolutionary Physiology and Biochemistry, Russian Academy of Science, Pr. Thorez 44, 194223, St. Petersburg, Russia
  • , D. OsorioAffiliated withSchool of Biological Sciences, University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9QG, UK e-mail: d.osorio@sussex.ac.uk; Fax: +44-1273-678433
  • , A. T. D. BennettAffiliated withSchool of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol, Woodland Rd, Bristol BS8 1UG, UK
  • , N. J. MarshallAffiliated withVision, Touch and Hearing Research Centre, Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, University of Queensland, St Lucia, Queensland 4072, Australia
  • , I. C. CuthillAffiliated withSchool of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol, Woodland Rd, Bristol BS8 1UG, UK

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There is a growing body of data on avian eyes, including measurements of visual pigment and oil droplet spectral absorption, and of receptor densities and their distributions across the retina. These data are sufficient to predict psychophysical colour discrimination thresholds for light-adapted eyes, and hence provide a basis for relating eye design to visual needs. We examine the advantages of coloured oil droplets, UV vision and tetrachromacy for discriminating a diverse set of avian plumage spectra under natural illumination. Discriminability is enhanced both by tetrachromacy and coloured oil droplets. Oil droplets may also improve colour constancy. Comparison of the performance of a pigeon's eye, where the shortest wavelength receptor peak is at 410 nm, with that of the passerine Leiothrix, where the ultraviolet-sensitive peak is at 365 nm, generally shows a small advantage to the latter, but this advantage depends critically on the noise level in the sensitivity mechanism and on the set of spectra being viewed.

Key words Bird Colour Vision UV Plumage