Bare skin, blood and the evolution of primate colour vision

Biol Lett. 2006 Jun 22;2(2):217-21. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2006.0440.


We investigate the hypothesis that colour vision in primates was selected for discriminating the spectral modulations on the skin of conspecifics, presumably for the purpose of discriminating emotional states, socio-sexual signals and threat displays. Here we show that, consistent with this hypothesis, there are two dimensions of skin spectral modulations, and trichromats but not dichromats are sensitive to each. Furthermore, the M and L cone maximum sensitivities for routine trichromats are optimized for discriminating variations in blood oxygen saturation, one of the two blood-related dimensions determining skin reflectance. We also show that, consistent with the hypothesis, trichromat primates tend to be bare faced.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Color Perception / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Oxyhemoglobins / analysis
  • Primates / anatomy & histology
  • Primates / blood
  • Primates / physiology*
  • Retinal Cone Photoreceptor Cells / physiology
  • Skin / blood supply*
  • Skin / chemistry
  • Spectrum Analysis


  • Oxyhemoglobins
  • Oxygen