Clément Bardot/Wikimedia Commons

You can thank your fruit-hunting ancestors for your color vision

BOSTON—Among mammals, primates are unique in that certain species have three different types of light-sensitive cone cells in their eyes rather than two. This allows humans and their close relatives to see what we think of as the standard spectrum of color. (Humans with red-green color blindness, of course, see a different spectrum.) The standard explanation for why primates developed trichromacy, as this kind of vision is called, is that it allowed our early ancestors to see colorful ripe fruit more easily against a background of mostly green forest. A particular Old World monkey, the rhesus macaque (pictured), has a genetic distinction that offers a convenient natural test of this hypothesis: A common genetic variation makes some females have three types of cone cells and others have two. Studies with captive macaques has shown that trichromatic females are faster than their dichromatic peers at finding fruit, but attempts to see whether that’s true for wild monkeys have been complicated by the fact that macaques are hard to find, and age and rank also play big roles in determining who eats when. A vision researcher reported here today at the annual meeting of AAAS, which publishes Science, that after making more than 20,000 individual observations of 80 different macaques feeding from 30 species of trees on Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico, she can say with confidence that wild trichromatic female monkeys do indeed appear to locate and eat fruit more quickly than dichromatic ones, lending strong support to the idea that this advantage helped drive the evolution of trichromacy in humans and our relatives.
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