Plastic sexual ornaments: Assessing temperature effects on color metrics in a color-changing reptile

B. A. Assis, Benjamin Jarrett, Gabe Koscky, Tracy Lee Langkilde, Julian Avery

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Conspicuous coloration is an important subject in social communication and animal behavior, and it can provide valuable insight into the role of visual signals in social selection. However, animal coloration can be plastic and affected by abiotic factors such as temperature, making its quantification problematic. In such cases, careful consideration is required so that metric choices are consistent across environments and least sensitive to abiotic factors. A detailed assessment of plastic trait in response to environmental conditions could help identify more robust methods for quantifying color. Temperature affects sexual ornamentation of eastern fence lizards, Sceloporus undulatus, with ventral coloration shifting from green to blue hues as temperatures rise, making the calculation of saturation (color purity) difficult under conditions where temperatures vary. We aimed to characterize how abiotic factors influence phenotypic expression and to identify a metric for quantifying animal color that is either independent from temperature (ideally) or best conserves individual’s ranks. We compared the rates of change in saturation across two temperature treatments using seven metrics: three that are based on fixed spectral ranges (with two of them designed by us specifically for this system) and three that track the expressed hue (with one of them designed by us to circumvent spurious results in unornamented individuals). We also applied a lizard visual sensitivity model to understand how temperature-induced color changes may be perceived by conspecifics. We show that the rate of change in saturation between two temperatures is inconsistent across individuals, increasing at a higher rate in individuals with higher baseline saturation at lower temperatures. In addition, the relative color rank of individuals in a population varies with the temperature standardized by the investigator, but more so for some metrics than others. While we were unable to completely eliminate the effect of temperature, current tools for quantifying color allowed us to use spectral data to estimate saturation in a variety of ways and to largely preserve saturation ranks of individuals across temperatures while avoiding erroneous color scores. We describe our approaches and suggest best-practices for quantifying and interpreting color, particularly in cases where color changes in response to environmental factors.
Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalPLoS One
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2020


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