Evolutionary Ecology

, Volume 21, Issue 5, pp 601–611 | Cite as

Colour perception in three-spined sticklebacks: sexes are not so different after all

  • Philip Boulcott
  • Victoria A. Braithwaite
Original Paper


Sexual selection theory implies a tight coupling between the evolution of male sexual display and the sensory capabilities of the female. In sexually dimorphic species it is proposed that this might lead to sex differences in a species’ perceptive abilities. However, supporting evidence for this is rare, and to date there is only one example; three-spined sticklebacks, Gasterosteus aculeatus. Here, the female’s visual system is reported to become more red-sensitive during the summer breeding season; a time when sexually mature males display a red throat and belly to potential mates. In contrast, a shift in sensitivity is not apparent in males. These results, although commonly quoted, are surprising because previous observations suggest that both sexes may benefit from the detection of the male’s red colour patch; in females the intensity of red coloration can influence the choice of mate, and in males the conspicuous red colouration can aid the detection of rival males. To investigate this paradox we repeated the original optomotor experiment using a fully controlled design. In contrast to the earlier result, we found that both males and females exhibit a shift in their sensitivity to red during the reproductive period. These new data therefore do not support the hypothesis that sex differences in perceptual abilities occur in sexually dimorphic species.


Vision Gasterosteus aculeatus Stickleback Receiver bias Sensory drive 



We thank Derek Cosens for his invaluable advice and practical assistance throughout the course of this study, Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, Julian Partridge, and the Darwin Workshop for their help in the construction of experimental apparatus. We would also like to acknowledge the valuable input from two anonymous referees during the compilation of this paper. Funding for this experiment came from Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Evolutionary Biology, School of Biological SciencesThe University of EdinburghEdinburghUK

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