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Comparison of Categorical Color Perception in Two Estrildid Finches

Sensory systems are predicted to be adapted to the perception of important stimuli, such as signals used in communication. Prior work has shown that female zebra finches perceive the carotenoid-based orange-red coloration of male beaks—a mate choice signal—categorically. Specifically, females exhibited an increased ability to discriminate between colors from opposite sides of a perceptual category boundary than equally different colors from the same side of the boundary. The Bengalese finch, an estrildid finch related to the zebra finch, is black, brown, and white, lacking carotenoid coloration. To explore the relationship between categorical color perception and signal use, we tested Bengalese finches using the same orange-red continuum as in zebra finches, and we also tested how both species discriminated among colors differing systematically in hue and brightness. Unlike in zebra finches, we found no evidence of categorical perception of an orange-red continuum in Bengalese finches. Instead, we found that the combination of chromatic distance (hue difference) and Michelson contrast (difference in brightness) strongly correlated with color discrimination ability on all tested color pairs in Bengalese finches. The pattern was different in zebra finches: this strong correlation held when discriminating between colors from different categories but not when discriminating between colors from within the same category. These experiments suggest that categorical perception is not a universal feature of avian—or even estrildid finch—vision. Our findings also provide further insights into the mechanism underlying categorical perception and are consistent with the hypothesis that categorical perception is adapted for signal perception.