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The function of colours in the animal world

Colouration help animals to protect themselves and to survive. Colours also help animals to find a partner to mate with. Knowledge about how colours are perceived and function in the world of animals is poised to make contributions to medicine, security and clothing.
A rainbow lorikeet.
Colouration has different functions and signals different things to different species. The photo shows a rainbow lorikeet. Photo: Michael Pfaff

In a review article in Science researchers with different specializations from several countries describe the function and evolution of colouration among animals. Technological progress such as digitalization and spectrophotometry has made it possible for research to take big steps forward the last couple of decades. The progress has led to the realization that other creatures don’t see and experience the world in the same way as we do.

Colouration has different functions and signals different things to different species. Colours are important when animals want to find a mate. Colouration is also used for thermoregulation and protection against parasites. Colours can work as a warning signal but also as camouflage. One of the things researchers now look into is the evolution of camouflage based on what an animal’s predator can see.

Almut Kelber, professor at the Department of Biology at Lund University, is one of the authors of the article in Science. She has studied colour vision within different species and she emphasizes the importance of researchers broadening their studies and putting colours and colouration into a wider context.

”Colour works together with scents and other factors among many animals. One species can use colour in one context but not in another. Colours are seldom important for visualizing small details. On the other hand, colour plays an important role when it comes to finding a partner,” says Almut Kelber.

Biologists, geneticists, physicists, psychologists and anthropologists have contributed to the article that is published in the scientific magazine Science.

Jan Olsson

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