Pigments, patterns, and fish behavior

Zebrafish. 2008 Dec;5(4):297-307. doi: 10.1089/zeb.2008.0551.


Color patterns in fish are often multicomponent signals, composed of pigment-based and structural color patches that can be used to communicate within species, in both inter- and intrasexual interactions, and between species. In this review, we discuss some of the roles played by pigment-based elements of color pattern. We begin by discussing general forms of coloration, classifying them by appearance (e.g., cryptic vs. conspicuous) and apparent function (e.g., conspicuous coloration and mating displays, stripes and cooperation, and bars and aggression). We then briefly discuss the roles pigments play in the perception of these color patterns via their presence in the eye. In the last section, we look at the relative importance of carotenoid versus melanic coloration in situations where honest signals to potential rivals and potential mates might be required. In this survey, we have highlighted some recent research, especially studies that consider both the physiological and behavioral processes underlying the evolution and expression of pigment-based color patterns in fish. The nature of pigmented color patterns depends not just on the dynamics of pattern development and physiological regulation, but also on the behavioral roles played by these patterns, both now and in the past. As such, advances in particular fields of study on pigment patterns (physiology, developmental biology, behavioral ecology, evolutionary biology, etc.) will increasingly depend on insights from other fields.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Fishes / physiology*
  • Pigments, Biological / physiology*


  • Pigments, Biological