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Cone pigment polymorphism in New World monkeys: Are all pigments created equal?

  • MICKEY P. ROWE (a1) and GERALD H. JACOBS (a1)


Most platyrrhine monkeys have a triallelic M/L opsin gene polymorphism that underlies significant individual variations in color vision. A survey of the frequencies of these polymorphic genes suggests that the three alleles occur with equal frequency among squirrel monkeys (subfamily Cebinae), but are not equally frequent in a number of species from the subfamily Callitrichinae. This departure from equal frequency in the Callitrichids should slightly increase the ratio of dichromats to trichromats in the population and significantly alter the relative representation of the three possible dichromatic and trichromatic phenotypes. A particular feature of the inequality is that it leads to a relative increase in the number of trichromats whose M/L pigments have the largest possible spectral separation. To assess whether these trichromatic phenotypes are equally well equipped to make relevant visual discriminations, psychophysical experiments were run on human observers. A technique involving the functional substitution of photopigments was used to simulate the discrimination between fruits among a background of leaves. The goal of the simulation was to reproduce in the cones of human observers excitations equivalent to those produced in monkey cones as the animals view fruit. Three different viewing conditions were examined involving variations in the relative luminances of fruit and leaves and the spectrum of the illuminant. In all cases, performance was best for simulated trichromacies including M/L pigments with the largest spectral separation. Thus, the inequality of opsin gene frequency in Callitrichid monkeys may reflect adaptive pressures.


Corresponding author

Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Mickey P. Rowe, Neuroscience Research Institute, University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA 93106, USA. E-mail:


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