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Open Access Research article

Color signaling in conspicuous red sticklebacks: do ultraviolet signals surpass others?

Ingolf P Rick* and Theo CM Bakker

Author Affiliations

Institut für Evolutionsbiologie und Ökologie, University of Bonn, An der Immenburg 1, D-53121 Bonn, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:189  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-189

Published: 1 July 2008

Abstract

Background

The use of ultraviolet (UV) signals for communication tasks is widespread in vertebrates. For instance, there is a UV component to mate choice in several species. Nevertheless, it remains unclear how the signal value of the UV wave band compares to that of other regions of the animal's visible spectrum. We investigated the relative importance of UV signals compared with signals of longer wavelengths in the threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus), a species using UV wavelengths in female and male mate choice as well as in shoaling behavior. In a choice experiment, female sticklebacks were simultaneously presented with four male visual appearances manipulated by optical filters. Each male lacked one wavelength range of the stickleback's visible spectrum corresponding to the spectral sensitivities of the four cone types. The resulting male appearances thus had no UV (UV-), no short-wave (SW-), no medium-wave (MW-) or no long-wave (LW-) body reflectance.

Results

Males without UV wavelengths and long wavelengths ("red") were least preferred. In contrast, the removal of medium and most notably short wavelengths left male attractiveness to females rather unaffected. Using color metrics, the effects of the four optical filters on stickleback perception of three male body regions were illustrated as quantal catches calculated for the four single cones.

Conclusion

The removal of UV light (UV-) considerably reduced visual attractiveness of courting males to female three-spined sticklebacks particularly in comparison to the removal of short-wave light (SW-). We thus report first experimental evidence that the UV wave band clearly outranks at least one other part of an animal's visible spectrum (SW-) in the context of communication. In addition, females were also less attracted to males presented without long wavelengths (LW-) which supports the traditionally considered strong influence of the red color component on stickleback mate choice. Overall, the removal of medium wavelengths (MW-) and especially short (SW-) left male attractiveness for females rather unaffected. Our work suggests that, in addition to long wavelengths ("red"), the UV wave band contains important information for visual mate choice in sticklebacks. Hence, the previously suggested exclusive role of the characteristic red nuptial coloration in visual interactions between reproductively active stickleback conspecifics may be overestimated with UV wavelengths playing a more important role than previously suggested.