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Clin Exp Optom. 2004 Jul;87(4-5):230-8.

Ecology and evolution of primate colour vision.

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  • 1Vision Touch and Hearing Research Centre, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.


More than one hundred years ago, Grant Allen suggested that colour vision in primates, birds and insects evolved as an adaptation for foraging on colourful advertisements of plants--fruits and flowers. Recent studies have shown that well developed colour vision appeared long before fruits and flowers evolved. Thus, colour vision is generally beneficial for many animals, not only for those eating colourful food. Primates are the only placental mammals that have trichromatic colour vision. This may indicate either that trichromacy is particularly useful for primates or that primates are unique among placental mammals in their ability to utilise the signals of three spectrally distinct types of cones or both. Because fruits are an important component of the primate diet, primate trichromacy could have evolved as a specific adaptation for foraging on fruits. Alternatively, primate trichromacy could have evolved as an adaptation for many visual tasks. Comparative studies of mammalian eyes indicate that primates are the only placental mammals that have in their retina a pre-existing neural machinery capable of utilising the signals of an additional spectral type of cone. Thus, the failure of non-primate placental mammals to evolve trichromacy can be explained by constraints imposed on the wiring of retinal neurones.

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