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Do humans and animals see colors in the same way?

Do humans and animals see colors in the same way?

The ability to perceive color allows humans and animals to make vital distinctions in their environments. Color vision provides crucial information for finding food, choosing mates, avoiding predators, and more. But not all creatures see color in the same way. There are key differences in how human and animal visual systems detect and process color information.

How do humans see color?

Normal human color vision relies on cells in the retina called cones. There are three types of cones that are each sensitive to different wavelengths of light. Signals from these cone cells are processed by the brain to produce the experience of color.

Humans are trichromatic, meaning our vision is based on three primary colors: red, green, and blue. By combining signals from cones that detect these three colors, we can perceive the full range of hues in the visible spectrum.

The human retina normally contains the following types of cones:

  • S cones – Respond maximally to short wavelengths of light near 420 nanometers, in the blue region of the visible spectrum.
  • M cones – Respond maximally to medium wavelengths near 530 nanometers, in the green region.
  • L cones – Respond maximally to longer wavelengths near 560 nanometers, in the red region.

Having three distinct cone types with different color sensitivities allows humans to see millions of colors. The nervous system blends signals from the S, M, and L cones in varying degrees to produce full color vision.

How do other animals see color?

Many animals have color vision, but most don’t see colors the same way humans do. There are a few key variables that determine how an animal perceives color:

  • Number of cone cell types – Some animals have fewer or more cone types than humans, affecting color perception.
  • Peak cone sensitivities – The specific wavelengths that an animal’s cone cells respond to will influence how they see different colors.
  • Neural processing – Differences in how the nervous system handles color signals leads to variations in color experiences between species.

Based on these factors, we can group animal color vision into three broad categories compared to normal human trichromatic vision:


Many mammals are dichromats, meaning they have only two active cone cell types. As a result, dichromats can discriminate some colors but cannot perceive the full spectrum of hues.

Examples of dichromatic mammals include:

  • Dogs
  • Cats
  • Rabbits
  • Rats and mice
  • Bulls

These animals typically have blue and green sensitive cones. Some dichromats are “red-green colorblind” in human terms, unable to distinguish reds from greens. But they may also perceive some reddish and greenish hues through their two cone types.


Birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians possess tetrachromatic vision. This means they have four types of cone cells for detecting different colors.

Tetrachromacy allows animals like birds to see ultraviolet wavelengths of light that are invisible to humans. Their additional cone types let them make more nuanced color distinctions than trichromats.

Examples of tetrachromatic animals include:

  • Parrots and canaries
  • Goldfish
  • Zebrafish
  • Chickens
  • Lizards

Depending on their cone cells’ peak sensitivities, tetrachromats may perceive colors very differently than humans do. But their four cone types give them a richer chromatic experience overall.


Some animals only have a single cone cell type and see no color at all. Their vision consists of brightness differences (light vs. dark) but no distinct hues.

Examples of monochromatic animals are:

  • Owls
  • Moles
  • Raccoons
  • Bats

Monochromacy is rare in the animal kingdom. Having at least dichromatic color vision provides most species important visual advantages.

Key genetic and anatomical factors

Let’s look at some of the key factors that account for variations in animal color vision compared to humans:

Opsin genes

Opsins are light-sensitive proteins in cone and rod cells. Different opsins are sensitive to different wavelengths of light based on their molecular structure.

By having multiple opsin genes that produce opsins with distinct color sensitivities, animals can have two, three, or even four types of functional cone cells.

Loss or mutation of opsin genes can also reduce an animal’s color vision. For example, mammals lost two of the four opsin genes present in early vertebrates, leaving them dichromatic instead of tetrachromatic like birds and fish.

Cone cell morphology

The external structure of cone cells, including oil droplets and other adaptations, alters their wavelength sensitivities. Oil droplets act as filters to sharpen and narrow the color sensitivities of different cone types.

Birds, reptiles, and fish tune their cone cells with various oil droplets, fine-tuning color vision for their environments. Mammals lack oil droplets, one reason their color vision is limited compared to other vertebrates.

Neural processing

After cone cells detect colored light, the signals are processed by complex neural circuits before reaching the brain. Differences in retinal and brain processing of color information contribute to variations between human and animal color experiences.

For example, although dichromatic mammals have fewer cone types, some appear to compensate partially through additional neural processing, expanding their limited color perception beyond what humans would see with the same cone inputs.

Implications of animal color vision

Differences in how humans and animals see color have many implications. A few key examples include:


Colorful displays play an important role in social communication for many animals. Specific color patterns may convey threats, mating signals, camouflage, or territorial boundaries.

These color cues are specifically adapted for conspecifics (members of the same species) who see color the same way. Some signals hidden from human eyes may be vividly apparent to animals like birds and fish.

Predator/prey detection

Distinguishing colors helps predators spot potential prey against various backgrounds. At the same time, prey species’ color vision aids in detecting and evading predators.

Many animals see parts of the UV spectrum humans can’t, which may provide enhanced detection of UV-reflecting flowers or urine trails. Alternatively, some predators have blind spots in UV compared to their prey.

Food selection

The ability to discriminate different colors helps animals effectively find and choose nutritious foods. Birds use color cues to select ripe fruits. Fish may key in on colorful coral reef inhabitants as food sources. Bees use color vision to locate flowers with nectar guides.

Key food sources often stand out from green foliage based on uniqueness, brightness, or contrast of color.

Habitat and navigation

Color vision allows animals to distinguish elements in their environment essential for habitat selection and navigation. Fish likely use color to orient themselves on coral reefs. Birds may use color patterns and landmarks to migrate and return to nest sites.

Enhanced color perception in many animals helps them effectively navigate through complex environments.

Do any animals see color like humans?

Very few animal species are believed to see colors the same as trichromatic humans. However, some Old World primates like chimpanzees and orangutans may have similar trichromatic color vision:

  • They seem to distinguish all the same colors as humans, unlike dichromatic mammals.
  • Genetic analyses suggest they have three similar opsin genes producing three cone pigments with peak sensitivities analogous to human cones.
  • Their retinas contain anatomically similar S, M, and L cone types in comparable proportions to the human retina.

This suggests chimps and orangutans likely see colors in essentially the same way as humans, thanks to common trichromatic primate ancestry. However, we cannot know exactly how similar their subjective color experiences are to ours.


In summary, while many animals have color vision, significant differences exist between how humans and other species see color. Factors like additional or missing cone cell types, spectral tuning by oil droplets, and neural processing account for variations in color perception across the animal kingdom compared to human trichromatic vision.

Understanding the color vision capacities and limitations of different animals has crucial implications for interpreting their behavior and ecology. We cannot necessarily assume other species see color like we do. Comparative studies continue to reveal fascinating new insights into the diverse visual worlds of different creatures.