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Optimal Mechanisms for Finding and Selecting Mates, How Threespine Stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) Should Encode Male Throat Colors


Male threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) use nuptial colors to attract mates and intimidate rivals. We quantified stickleback color and environmental lighting using methods independent of human perception to evaluate the information transmitted by male signals in a habitat where these signals are displayed. We also developed models of chromatic processing based on four cone photopigments (peak absorptions at 360, 445, 530 and 605 nm) characterized microspectrophotometrically in G. aculeatus and three other stickleback species. We show that a simple opponent mechanism receiving equally-weighted inputs from cones with peak absorptions at 445 nm and 605 nm efficiently encodes variation in male throat colors. An orthogonal opponent mechanism -- the difference between outputs of 530 nm cones and mean of outputs of 445 and 605 nm cones -- produces a neural signal that could be used for species recognition and would be largely insensitive to variation in male throat color. We also show that threespine stickleback throats/photopigments are optimized for this coding scheme. These and other findings lead to testable hypotheses about the spectral processing mechanisms present in the threespine stickleback visual systems and the evolutionary interactions that have shaped this signal/receiver system.

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