Wild hummingbirds discriminate nonspectral colors


Many animals have the potential to discriminate nonspectral colors. For humans, purple is the clearest example of a nonspectral color. It is perceived when two color cone types in the retina (blue and red) with nonadjacent spectral sensitivity curves are predominantly stimulated. Purple is considered nonspectral because no monochromatic light (such as from a rainbow) can evoke this simultaneous stimulation. Except in primates and bees, few behavioral experiments have directly examined nonspectral color discrimination, and little is known about nonspectral color perception in animals with more than three types of color photoreceptors. Birds have four color cone types (compared to three in humans) and might perceive additional nonspectral colors such as UV+red and UV+green. Can birds discriminate nonspectral colors, and are these colors behaviorally and ecologically relevant? Here, using comprehensive behavioral experiments, we show that wild hummingbirds can discriminate a variety of nonspectral colors. We also show that hummingbirds, relative to humans, likely perceive a greater proportion of natural colors as nonspectral. Our analysis of plumage and plant spectra reveals many colors that would be perceived as nonspectral by birds but not by humans: Birds’ extra cone type allows them not just to see UV light but also to discriminate additional nonspectral colors. Our results support the idea that birds can distinguish colors throughout tetrachromatic color space and indicate that nonspectral color perception is vital for signaling and foraging. Since tetrachromacy appears to have evolved early in vertebrates, this capacity for rich nonspectral color perception is likely widespread.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences