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Trying to See Red Through Stickleback Photoreceptors: Functional Substitution of Receptor Sensitivities


Mickey P. Rowe, Neuroscience Research Institute, University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA 93106-5060, USA. E-mail:


A key to understanding animal behavior is knowledge of the sensory information animals extract from their environment. For visually motivated tasks, the information animals obtain through their eyes is often assumed to be essentially the same as that perceived by humans. However, known differences in structure and processing among the visual systems of different animals clearly indicate that the world seen by each is different. A well-characterized difference between human and other animal visual systems is the number of types and spectral sensitivities of their photoreceptors. We are developing a technique, functional substitution, that exploits knowledge of these differences to portray for human subjects, colors as they would appear through the photoreceptors of another animal. In a specific application, we ask human subjects to rank hues of male threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) throats viewed through stickleback photopigments. We compare these ranks to ranks of the same throat hues viewed through normal human photoreceptors. We find essentially no difference between the two sets of rankings. This suggests that any differences in human and stickleback rankings of such hues would result from differences in post-receptoral neural processing. Using a previously developed model of stickleback neural processing, we established another ranking of the hues which was again essentially the same as the rankings produced by the human subjects. A growing literature indicates that stickleback do rank such hues in the evaluation of males as potential mates or threats. Although our results do not demonstrate that humans and stickleback use the same mechanisms to assess color, our experiments significantly failed to show that stickleback and human rankings of throat hues should be different. Nevertheless, a comparison of all these rankings to ranks derived from subjective color scoring by human observers suggests that color scoring may utilize other cues and should thus be used cautiously.