The study of sexual dichromatism has played an important role in the development and testing of evolutionary theory. However, previous work has often relied on human vision to assess plumage color and contrast, an approach challenged by the finding that dichromatism is often visible to birds but invisible to humans. We explicitly tested whether the use of human vision undermines previous comparative analyses in antbirds (Thamnophilidae). Focusing on a sample of 71 species, we used (1) molecular sequencing of the SWS1 opsin gene to assess spectral sensitivity and (2) spectrophotometry and color discrimination models to compare human and avian perception of dichromatism. We show that antbirds, like the majority of avian families studied to date, are violet-sensitive (VS) rather than ultraviolet-sensitive (UVS). We also demonstrate that species perceived as monochromatic by humans may look dichromatic to antbirds, but that human and avian perceptions of dichromatism are nonetheless positively correlated. To assess whether this relationship validates the assumptions of published comparative analyses, we re-ran the analyses using avian-perceived dichromatism; the results remained qualitatively unchanged. Although it is clear that the use of spectrophotometry and visual models can improve measurements of plumage coloration, we conclude that scores generated from human perception provide a meaningful estimate of sexual dichromatism for the purposes of comparative analyses, at least in antbirds. Furthermore, our results suggest that discrepancies between human and avian perceptions of sexual color differences may be relatively minor in avian families with VS visual systems.
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Vol. 127 • No. 2