A species of reef fish that uses ultraviolet patterns for covert face recognition. Academic Article uri icon


  • The evolutionary and behavioral significance of an animal's color patterns remains poorly understood [1-4], not least, patterns that reflect ultraviolet (UV) light [5]. The current belief is that UV signals must be broad and bold to be detected because (1) they are prone to scattering in air and water, (2) when present, UV-sensitive cones are generally found in low numbers, and (3) long-wavelength-sensitive cones predominate in form vision in those species tested to date [6]. We report a study of two species of damselfish whose appearance differs only in the fine detail of UV-reflective facial patterns. We show that, contrary to expectations, the Ambon damselfish (Pomacentrus amboinensis) is able to use these patterns for species discrimination. We also reveal that the essential features of the patterns are contained in their shape rather than color. The results provide support for the hypothesis that UV is used by some fish as a high-fidelity "secret communication channel" hidden from predators [7, 8]. In more general terms, the findings help unravel the details of a language of color and pattern long since lost to our primate forebears, but which has been part of the world of many seeing organisms for millions of years.

publication date

  • March 9, 2010