Influence of visual background on discrimination of signal-relevant colours in zebra finches (<i>Taeniopygia guttata</i>).

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Colour signals of many animals are surrounded by a high-contrast achromatic background, but little is known about the possible function of this arrangement. For both humans and non-human animals, the background colour surrounding a colour stimulus affects the perception of that stimulus, an effect that can influence detection and discrimination of colour signals. Specifically, high colour contrast between the background and two given colour stimuli makes discrimination more difficult. However, it remains unclear how achromatic background contrast affects signal discrimination in non-human animals. Here, we test whether achromatic contrast between signal-relevant colours and an achromatic background affects the ability of zebra finches to discriminate between those colours. Using an odd-one-out paradigm and generalized linear mixed models, we found that higher achromatic contrast with the background, whether positive or negative, decreases the ability of zebra finches to discriminate between target and non-target stimuli. This effect is particularly strong when colour distances are small (less than 4 ΔS) and Michelson achromatic contrast with the background is high (greater than 0.5). We suggest that researchers should consider focal colour patches and their backgrounds as collectively comprising a signal, rather than focusing on solely the focal colour patch itself.





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Davis, Alexander, Matthew N Zipple, Danae Diaz, Susan Peters, Stephen Nowicki and Sönke Johnsen (2022). Influence of visual background on discrimination of signal-relevant colours in zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata). Proceedings. Biological sciences, 289(1976). p. 20220756. 10.1098/rspb.2022.0756 Retrieved from

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Stephen Nowicki

Professor of Biology

Our lab studies animal communication, asking both proximate and ultimate questions about how signaling systems function and how they evolve. Most of our work is done with birds, although lab members have studied a variety of other taxa. One major theme that runs through our work is to understand how signal reliability (“honesty”) is maintained in the face of the competing evolutionary interests of signal senders and receivers. We use both laboratory experiments and field-based analyses to test hypotheses about the costs of signal production, which theory suggests are necessary to maintain reliability. For example, we have demonstrated that the reliability of birdsong as a signal of quality in the context of mate choice is maintained by variation in the response of young birds to early developmental stress, which in turn affects brain development and song learning. Another theme that runs through our work concerns how animals themselves perceive signals, in particular the role of categorical perception in communication. Our work here began with birdsong, for example demonstrating context-dependent variation in category boundaries that define the smallest acoustic units of song (“notes”), and identifying categorical responses of neurons in the “song system” of the brain to variation in those notes. More recently, we have begun to study categorical perception in visual signaling, demonstrating for example that the carotenoid-based orange-red coloration commonly used in assessment signaling may be perceived categorically. This finding illustrates the connection between our interests in perception and reliability, given that canonical models of reliability assume continuous perception.


Sonke Johnsen

Ida Stephens Owens Distinguished Professor

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