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Keywords:

  • pelage;
  • pigmentation;
  • melanin;
  • dichromatism;
  • sexual selection

Abstract

Flip through The Pictorial Guide to the Living Primates1 and you will notice a striking yet generally underappreciated aspect of primate biology: primates are extremely colorful. Primate skin and pelage coloration were highlighted examples in Darwin's2 original discussions of sexual selection but, surprisingly, the topic has received little research attention since. Here we summarize the patterns of color variation observed across the primate order and examine the selective forces that might drive and maintain this aspect of primate phenotypic diversity. We discuss how primate color patterns might be adaptive for physiological function, crypsis, and communication. We also briefly summarize what is known about the genetic basis of primate pigmentation and argue that understanding the proximate mechanisms of primate coloration will be essential, not only for understanding the evolutionary forces shaping phenotypic variation, but also for clarifying primate taxonomies and conservation priorities.