Using human vision to detect variation in avian coloration: How bad is it?

Zachary T. Bergeron, Rebecca C. Fuller

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review


Assessing variation in animal coloration is difficult, as animals differ in their visual system properties. This has led some to propose that human vision can never be used to evaluate coloration, yet many studies have a long history of relying on human vision. To reconcile these views, we compared the reflectance spectra of preserved avian plumage elements with two measures that are human biased: RGB values from digital photographs and the corresponding reflectance spectra from a field guide. We measured 73 plumage elements across 14 bird species. The field guide reflectance spectra were drastically different from that of the actual birds, particularly for blue elements. However, principal component analyses on all three data sets indicated remarkably similar data structure. We conclude that human vision can detect much of the variation in coloration in the visible range, providing fodder for subsequent studies in ecology, evolution, behavior, and visual ecology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)269-276
Number of pages8
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2018


  • Birds
  • Digital photography
  • Reflectance
  • Spectrophotometry
  • Ultraviolet
  • Visual systems

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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