Primates are apparently unique amongst the mammals in possessing trichromatic colour vision. However, not all primates are trichromatic. Amongst the haplorhine (higher) primates, the catarrhines possess uniformly trichromatic colour vision, whereas most of the platyrrhine species exhibit polymorphic colour vision, with a variety of dichromatic and trichromatic phenotypes within the population.
It has been suggested that trichromacy in primates and the reflectance functions of certain tropical fruits are aspects of a coevolved seed–dispersal system: primate colour vision has been shaped by the need to find coloured fruits amongst foliage, and the fruits themselves have evolved to be salient to primates and so secure dissemination of their seeds. We review the evidence for and against this hypothesis and we report an empirical test: we show that the spectral positioning of the cone pigments found in trichromatic South American primates is well matched to the task of detecting fruits against a background of leaves. We further report that particular trichromatic platyrrhine phenotypes may be better suited than others to foraging for particular fruits under particular conditions of illumination; and we discuss possible explanations for the maintenance of polymorphic colour vision amongst the platyrrhines.