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Wild Chromatics: Exploring Nature's Color Palette

Color perception in nature is a complex interplay of adaptation processes influenced by sunlight. Human vision accomodates itself to different light conditions, adjusting chromatic and contrast adaptation to ensure consistent color perception under various conditions. Organisms like cephalopods use chromatophores for rapid color changes, while iridophores create angle-dependent iridescence. Plants employ pigments for floral displays, attracting pollinators. Nature utilizes colors for defensive strategies like aposematism and mimicry, showcasing adaptability and communication. Bioluminescence, prevalent in marine organisms, involves enzymatic reactions contributing to underwater displays. This concise overview highlights the multifaceted roles of color in nature, from adaptive strategies to communication and survival.

Sunlight and Color Perception

Figure 1: Rainbow (photo from Tree Hugger).

Light consists of a spectrum of wavelengths, that are visible to humans, and different wavelengths correspond to different colors. This spectrum ranges from blue and violet to red (between 380 and 700 nm). Color appearance is influenced by adaptation processes that adjust sensitivity to both the average color (through light or chromatic adaptation) and variations in color (through contrast adaptation). Chromatic adaptation ensures that an object's color is perceived consistently under different lighting conditions, a process involving neural adjustments that occur at the level of the photoreceptors and retinal ganglion cells. When one moves from one lighting environment to another with a different color temperature (e.g., from daylight to incandescent light), the eyes tends adjust themselves to maintain the perception of colors. This adaptation involves a shift in the perception of white, and it helps us distinguish colors accurately under varying conditions. Contrast adaptation, on the other hand, reduces perceived contrast relative to this residual color, not relative to the achromatic stimulus (Webster & Wilson, 2000). So, chromatic adaptation allows one to perceive an object's color under varying lighting conditions, while contrast adaptation influences how color differences between objects are perceived. When one moves from a brightly lit environment into a dimly lit one, or the other way around, the eyes tend to adjust their sensitivity to different levels of light. This helps to maintain a consistent perception of objects' brightness and allows humans to see details in both high and low light conditions.

The visual system dynamically adjusts to both the average color and temporal variations, ensuring a consistent and adaptive experience of the surrounding environment. The interplay between light adaptation, chromatic adaptation, and contrast adaptation contributes to how colors are perceived. A fundamental example to understand this phenomenon can be the colors of a rainbow, observed in the order of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet, which correspond to different wavelengths of light (Schalk et al., 2017). This aligns with the discussion of how different colors in the spectrum of light are perceived by humans and how chromatic adaptation plays a role in color perception.

Origins of Colors In Nature

Chromatophores and Iridescence
Figure 2: Squid Chromatophores (photo from MeetHK).

Figure 3: Iridescence (photo from Behance).

Chromatophores are specialized pigment-containing organs found in the skin of cephalopods such as squids, cuttlefish, and octopuses. They come in several types, including melanophores (black, brown, red), xanthophores (yellow), erythrophores (orange and red), iridophores (iridescent colors), and leucophores (iridescent white). These organs enable organisms to change the color and pattern of their skin rapidly, allowing for a variety of visual displays and effective camouflage, involving a process of expansion and contraction of pigment sacs within the chromatophores. Among these, melanophores are well-known; the movement of dark pigments within these cells can make an animal appear darker or lighter by obscuring or concentrating neighboring chromatophores. Chromatophores can be controlled by hormones or neurons, enabling swift and dynamic color changes or patterns on the body, offering potential for rapid appearance control and displays (Williams et al., 2019). In some animals, chromatophores are layered in the skin, providing flexibility in color changes.

Unlike chromatophores, iridophores achieve their coloration through a different mechanism that highly depend on their structure. It enables reflection of light at different wavelengths to create a diverse range of colors. Due to this enhanced reflective ability, the color perceived from iridophores may be dependent on the angle from which they are observed. In the nature, iridescent colours are found in "the wings of Morpho butterflies, the flashing gorgets of hummingbirds, the well-camouflaged cephalopods, minerals such as opals and even plants" (Meadows et al., 2009).

Floral pigments

Beyond their ecological importance, plant species serve an essential aesthetic purpose by offering flowers in a diverse spectrum of colors, that are primarily evolved to attract pollinators and enhance reproductive success. Flower visibility and attractiveness are influenced by the wavelength dependence of back-scattered light, so, the way they are seen to the human eye is mostly determined by petal structuring and pigmentation (Stavenga et al., 2021). Three major pigments in the plant kingdom include anthocyanins, carotenoids, and betalains. While the biosynthesis and regulation of anthocyanins, synthesized as part of the flavonoid pathway, are well-understood due to their widespread distribution in flowering plants, recent developments revealed significant progress in comprehending the synthesis and roles of carotenoids (derived from isoprenoids) and betalains (derived from tyrosine) in flower pigmentation (Zhao et al., 2022). Carotenoids and flavonoids are flower pigments creating yellow tissues and flavonoids causing UV-absorbing white to pale-yellow colors. Anthocyanins confer red, blue, or purple color to plant tissues and are water-soluble. They are concentrated in epidermal cells, particularly effective in acidic vacuoles. The three major types of anthocyanin (cyanidin, pelargonidin, delphinidin) are found in terrestrial plants, with cyanidin more present in primitive families and delphinidin in highly evolved angiosperms (Stavenga et al., 2021). Interestingly, despite the prevalence of floral anthocyanins, carotenoids and aurones-chalcones create higher color conspicuousness for major pollinator groups (Narbona et al., 2021). 

Figure 4: Floral pigments (Narbona et al., 2021).

Figure 5: Codiaeum variegatum, ornamental plant (photo from Urban Mali).

Ornamental plants, in which the visual characteristics are appealing, were among the earliest subjects of hybridization efforts to modify specific color traits, contributing to the elucidation of fundamental genetic principles. The molecular insights into the regulation and biosynthesis of flower pigments primarily come from model systems like maize, Arabidopsis, Petunia, and Snapdragon (Grotewold et al., 2006).

Making Use of Colors In Nature


Aposematism is a biological phenomenon where organisms display distinctive coloration or patterns that act as a warning signal to potential predators, indicating that they are unpalatable, toxic, or harmful. Due to this coloration or "warning color", predators get discouraged from attacking or consuming the aposematic organism. The concept is often associated with brightly colored patterns, but it can encompass a broader range of morphological (having spines or a large body size), physiological (aggression), and behavioral defenses (bodily secretions) (Howell et al., 2021; María Arenas, 2015). These aposematic patterns raise contrast against the background, making the defended species more distinct from camouflaged and palatable prey. Predators learn to interpret these distinctive color patterns with unprofitability, and increased conspicuousness enhances the speed and longevity of avoidance learning. Many of these patterns have high-contrast boundaries that extend across the body, often combining bright colors with patches of black, creating internal contrast boundaries which may play a role in increasing the saliency of signals and maintaining signal constancy across different backgrounds and lighting conditions (Barnett et al., 2016). So, not only color saturation but also pattern elements may interact with the background and each other to reduce detectability.

Figure 6: Monarch butterfly (photo from Butterfly Conservation).
Figure 7: Salamandra salamandra (photo from iStock).

An example from nature could be the Monarch butterflies that have distinctive wing patterns, particularly with bright orange and black colors which act as a sign of toxicity and informs predators that the butterfly is unpalatable or harmful if consumed (Zhan et al., 2014). Further examples such as the fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra), skunks or blue poison dart frog (Dendrobates azureus) illustrate the diversity of aposematic signals across different taxa and the various ways which organisms developed through evolution to communicate their defenses to potential predators.


Color mimicry of aposematic warning signals involves organisms imitating the warning signals of unpalatable or toxic species to deter predators. Mimetic species evolve colors and body patterns to resemble either poisonous species (Batesian mimicry) to avoid predation or beneficial/harmless species (aggressive mimicry) to approach and attack prey. A non-venomous snake with color patterns similar to a venomous snake can be given as an example for true Batesian mimicry in nature. Müllerian mimicry involves multiple harmful or unpalatable species evolving to share similar warning coloration, such as several bee species with similar yellow-and-black coloration, which possess stinging capabilities. Facultative (dynamic) mimicry involves the ability to switch mimic coloration at will or change appearance to mimic different species (Jamie, 2017). Examples of facultative mimicry includes the bluestriped fangblenny (Plagiotremus rhinorhynchos) which imitates the juvenile cleaner fish (Labroides dimidiatus). In its mimic color form, the bluestriped fangblenny has a black body with an electric blue lateral stripe, resembling the juvenile cleaner fish. Recent studies from Cheney et al. (2008) show that bluestriped fangblennies lose their mimetic coloration when a cleaner fish is removed from a cleaning station or translocated away from a cleaner fish. By investigating the factors influencing color change and the accuracy of mimicry, their studies are promising to provide insights into the adaptive strategies of bluestriped fangblennies.

Figure 8: Bluestriped Fangblenny (photo from Florent's Guide To The French Polynesia).
Figure 9: Mimic Octopus (photo from OctoNation).

The mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus) displays an incredible ability to mimic various marine creatures, by adapting its appearance to different environments and situations. When stationary or foraging along the sandy bottom, the mimic octopus adopts mottled drab brown colors that blend with its surroundings that helps it remain inconspicuous to predators. In open water, it takes on black and white bands, trailing its arms behind it like the poisonous spines of a lionfish. This dynamic display of contrasting colors and shapes helps deter potential predators (Hanlon et al., 2010). The mimic octopus's ability to mimic various marine species suggests a high level of cognitive flexibility and adaptability. Mimicry, therefore, likely serves multiple purposes, including predator avoidance, deterring aggression, and potentially facilitating hunting when it comes to the mimic octopus.

Cryptic Coloration

The concept of crypsis refers to coloration or morphology that serves to make an animal less detectable or conspicuous to potential predators or prey. It is essentially a strategy to avoid being noticed, and it is distinct from mimicry, where an organism actively imitates something else to deceive or send deceptive signals, aiming for the animal to remain undetected. In contrast, mimicry involves sending signals to actively mislead observers, making them believe that the organism is some other kind. The predominant evidence for crypsis comes from terrestrial habitats, where animals often evolve colors and patterns that help them blend into their surroundings, which are typically dominated by greens and browns (Endler et al., 2006). Certain animals, such as frogs, lizards, and crabs, make use of chromatophores to adjust their color and brightness in response to daily changes, offering camouflage and potentially aiding in temperature regulation. Examples involve chameleons that can actively blend into their surroundings by interpreting visual cues, changing color combinations rapidly for effective camouflage (Green et al., 2019). The ability to match new backgrounds or colors in a fast manner over days provides a powerful tool for survival in diverse environments.

Figure 10: Chameleon (photo from BBC Wildlife).

Color Variations

Mutations can be caused by inherited traits, external stimuli, or spontaneous occurrences. Minor changes in the genetic code (genotype) can result in significant changes in appearance of organisms (phenotype). Due to mutations, diverse expressions of genetic codes can be created, leading to differences in appearance. Natural selection determines the survival of mutations based on their advantage or disadvantage for the species (McGuigan & Aw, 2017). Types of color variations in nature include:

Albinism: Total lack of melanin pigment, affecting the eyes, fur, feathers, and/or skin.

Leucism: Partial lack of melanin, distinct from albinism not affecting eye color.

Melanism: Excess production of melanin, leading to black or very dark-colored individuals.

Erythrism: Over-production of reddish pigmentation.

Xanthochromism: Excess production of yellow pigments (Mills & Patterson, 2009).

Figure 11: Migaloo, the White Whale (photo from Queensland).

Individuals with mutations leading to distinct appearances may face disadvantages, such as increased vulnerability to predators or challenges in camouflaging. Nevertheless, due to infrequency of mutations, these individuals appear rare in nature and some can even have positive outcomes. An example can be Migaloo, an Albino Humpback Whale, whose albinism has garnered attention, raising awareness about humpback whales and defying the typical fate of albino animals. This is due to the fact that instead of suffering early death, Migaloo's distinctiveness has contributed to the species' visibility and protection (Ashe et al., 2013).


Bioluminescence refers to light emission by living organisms in the visible spectrum and results from an enzymatic reaction involving luciferase (an enzyme that produces light when the substrate is oxidized) catalyzing the oxidation of luciferin by molecular oxygen (Wigglesworth, 1948). This makes oxygen a universal requirement for all bioluminescence reactions across diverse organisms. While present in terrestrial species, such as fireflies and fungi, it is most common among marine creatures. Bioluminescent organisms contribute to over 90% of organisms at depth, maintaining a colorful display in underwater environments. Even though the benefits are not fully understood, luminiscence among organisms is believed to play vital roles in communication, predator camouflage, confusing predators, and attracting prey.

Figure 12: Bioluminescence in Mexico (photo from Rutopia).

Figure 13: Bioluminescent mushrooms (photo from ThoughtCo).

Advanced molecular biology techniques in the past century facilitated the cloning of genes encoding luciferases from various luminous organisms. Initial breakthroughs involved genes from luminous bacteria, fireflies, and jellyfish, and paved the way for applications in biology and experimental medicine (Vysotski, 2022). The diversity of substrates, enzymes, and bioluminescence mechanisms among these organisms results in a variety of emitted colors, enriching the visual spectrum in marine ecosystems that can be explored.


The diverse manifestations of color in nature serve a myriad of functions, from adaptive strategies in organisms like cephalopods to intricate floral displays of plants. The interplay of sunlight and adaptive processes of light, chromatic, and contrast adaptation shape our perception of colors in the natural environment. Defensive mechanisms, such as aposematism and mimicry, leverage distinct coloration for survival. The captivating phenomenon of bioluminescence further enriches the visual spectrum in marine ecosystems. Understanding the intricate roles and adaptations related to color perception enhances our appreciation for the intricate tapestry of nature and the vital functions that color plays across different life forms.

Bibliographical References

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