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Can you see what I see?

May 27, 2008

I was made aware of this a couple weeks ago whilst perusing the weekly roundup of bird news that is A DC Birding Blog’s Loose Feathers series. If you’re interested in birds and somehow aware of my blog but not that one I highly suggest remedying that infraction and checking it at least every Friday. John does a great job wrapping up the week’s avian news both blog and non-blog related. It comes highly Drinking Bird approved, for whatever that’s worth.

Anyway, if you needed more evidence that human beings got the evolutionary short shrift when it comes to so many things, read this terribly interesting article. The gist of it is that the plumage characteristics that we find so interesting in many species is barely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to color, pattern, and contrast of the actual plumage. The difference is ultraviolet light, which birds are able to perceive, but we are not unless helped with a blacklight. Even then our perception is limited. From the article:

Through evolution, our colour vision has developed from a more primitive version. This means that we have gone from having two types of colour sensitive cones in our eyes to having three. Birds have four.

It’s that fourth cone that enables birds to see richness in color that we cannot. This extra sense is important in determining sexual fitness. For us to be unable to note these things is described in the article as a blind man attempting to describe the colors of clothes. It’s practically impossible for us to perceive the true nature of the colors. While the fact that birds see in UV is not really news, what is interesting here is the extent to which they use UV. I recall a bit on the David Attenborough Life of Birds series where he discusses the plumage characteristics of males in species that do not seem to us to be sexually dimorphic, which practically glow under a blacklight.

I couldn’t find that particular scene online, but here’s a similar one showing how Great Tits use UV reflection as a way to determine the fittest chicks in a given clutch. UV is apparently really important for how birds see the world, even in ways beyond sexual selection. Cool stuff.

One Comment
  1. John permalink
    May 28, 2008 6:05 pm

    That’s an interesting video.

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