The Design of Color Signals and Color Vision in Fishes

  • N. Justin Marshall
  • Misha Vorobyev


This chapter attempts three things. First, some of the possible functions of the astonishing colors of reef fishes are examined. Second, the spectral sensitivities and potential color vision capabilities of marine fishes are discussed in the light of old and new data. Finally, an integrated approach is used to model what fishes look like to fishes and where, theoretically, one might expect them to place spectral sensitivities. Factors combined in models include body colors, spectral sensitivities, visual resolution, light environment at the microhabitat level, and behavior.

General conclusions are as follows. Colors are almost always for camouflage and both the spectral and spatial resolving power of fish eyes play an important role in the success of camouflage strategies. Colors used in camouflage may also, simultaneously, be used for advertisement or communication, critically dependent on background, depth, and viewing distance. Disappointingly, most reef fishes are probably dichromats or at most trichromats; however, their spectral sensitivities are surprisingly varied when compared to some other animals. This variation is mainly due to differing microhabitat light environments and more of these have been recently described than previously noted. There is some correlation between the colors of reef fishes and their spectral sensitivities, possibly driven by the need to detect and distinguish fishes of different colors on the reef. Light environments account for the broad envelope within which spectral sensitivities of reef fish are placed, in particular those of double cones as previously noted. Where intervening water between target and observer is considered, its effect rapidly overshadows other factors. At long wavelengths (yellow, orange, red), the reef is probably less colorful to many reef fishes than it appears to us. At short wavelengths, ultraviolet (UV), violet, and blue, it may be more colorful. UV sensitivity is possible in about half of the reef fishes so far examined, and this visual capability is currently best correlated with feeding strategies but may also play a role in secret communication on the reef.


Coral Reef Reef Fish Great Barrier Reef Spectral Sensitivity Color Vision 
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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag New York, Inc. 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • N. Justin Marshall
    • 1
  • Misha Vorobyev
    • 1
  1. 1.Vision Touch and Hearing Research Centre, School of Biomedical SciencesUniversity of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia

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