I see your false colours: How artificial stimuli appear to different animal viewers

Mary Caswell Stoddard, Audrey E. Miller, Harold N. Eyster, Derya Akkaynak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The use of artificially coloured stimuli, especially to test hypotheses about sexual selection and anti-predator defence, has been common in behavioural ecology since the pioneering work of Tinbergen. To investigate the effects of colour on animal behaviour, many researchers use paints, markers and dyes to modify existing colours or to add colour to synthetic models. Because colour perception varies widely across species, it is critical to account for the signal receiver's vision when performing colour manipulations. To explore this, we applied 26 typical coloration products to different types of avian feathers. Next, we measured the artificially coloured feathers using two complementary techniques-spectrophotometry and digital ultraviolet-visible photography-and modelled their appearance to mammalian dichromats (ferret, dog), trichromats (honeybee, human) and avian tetrachromats (hummingbird, blue tit). Overall, artificial colours can have dramatic and sometimes unexpected effects on the reflectance properties of feathers, often differing based on feather type. The degree to which an artificial colour differs from the original colour greatly depends on an animal's visual system. 'White' paint to a human is not 'white' to a honeybee or blue tit. Based on our analysis, we offer practical guidelines for reducing the risk of introducing unintended effects when using artificial colours in behavioural experiments.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20180053
JournalInterface Focus
Issue number1
StatePublished - 6 Feb 2019
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.


  • Animal coloration
  • Animal vision
  • Artificial stimuli
  • Sensory ecology
  • Spectrophotometry
  • Ultraviolet digital photography

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Bioengineering
  • Biophysics
  • Biochemistry
  • Biotechnology
  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Biomaterials


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