International Journal of Primatology

, Volume 30, Issue 6, pp 893–917 | Cite as

Studying Primate Color: Towards Visual System-dependent Methods

  • Martin StevensEmail author
  • Mary Caswell Stoddard
  • James P. Higham


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.


coloration color measurement photography primates reflectance 



We thank Daniel Osorio, Lauren Brent, Brenda Bradley, and two anonymous referees for helpful comments on the manuscript, and attendees at the primate coloration symposium at the 2008 International Primatological Symposium for discussion. M. Stevens thanks Innes Cuthill, Tom Troscianko, Julian Partridge, Alejandro Párraga, and many others for a range of advice and discussion. M. Stevens’ attendance at IPS 2008 was funded by the British Ecological Society and Girton College. M. Stevens was supported by a Research Fellowship from Girton College, Cambridge. M. Caswell Stoddard was supported by the Marshall Aid Commemoration Commission and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. J. Higham thanks Melissa Gerald and Ann MacLarnon for discussions on the measurement, analysis, and interpretation of color. J. Higham’s attendance at IPS 2008 was funded by Roehampton University.


A range of self-written MATLAB files for undertaking modeling of quantal catch data and camera calibration are available on request from the corresponding author (


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Authors and Affiliations

  • Martin Stevens
    • 1
    Email author
  • Mary Caswell Stoddard
    • 1
  • James P. Higham
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of ZoologyUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK
  2. 2.Institute for Mind and BiologyUniversity of ChicagoChicagoUSA

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