• cichlid fish;
  • microspectrophotometry;
  • opsin gene;
  • speciation;
  • visual sensitivity


Lake Victoria cichlids are one of the most speciose groups of vertebrates. Selection on coloration is likely playing an important role in their rapid speciation. To test the hypothesis that sensory biases could explain species differences in mating preferences and nuptial coloration, we studied seven populations of four closely related species of the genus Pundamilia that differ in visual environment and male nuptial colour. Microspectrophotometry determined that the wavelength of maximum absorption (λmax) of the rod pigment and three cone pigments were similar in all four species. Only the long wavelength sensitive (LWS) pigment varied among species, with 3–4 nm shifts in λmax that correlated with differences in the LWS opsin sequence. These subtle shifts in λmax coincided with large shifts in male body colour, with red species having longer LWS pigments than blue species. Furthermore, we observed within and between species a correlation between water transparency and the proportion of red/red vs. red/green double cones. Individuals from turbid water had more red/red double cones than individuals from clear water. The variation in LWS λmax and in the proportion of red/red double cones could lead to differences in perceived brightness that may explain the evolution of variation in male coloration. However, other factors, such as chromophore shifts and higher order neural processing, should also be investigated to fully understand the physiological basis of differential responses to male mating hues in cichlid fish.