New software provides an animal-eye view of our colorful world

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Mirrored images of a Tenerife lizard as seen by a human (left) and by another lizard (right)(Credit: Jolyon Troscianko)

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Have you ever looked at a flower and thought, "I wonder what these colors would look like to a bee"? Perhaps not, but in any case, you can now find out using your own camera and computer. That's because scientists from the University of Exeter have developed the Multispectral Image Calibration and Analysis Toolbox, a piece of free software that lets you see the colors in photos the way that various animals would see them.

To use it, you start by selecting an animal from the provided list of species. Based on that selection, the software will then advise you on the camera settings needed for taking your photo(s). Once you've got the shot and loaded it into your computer, the program automatically calibrates it, separates the colors into different layers, and ultimately outputs a version of the photo in which the colors appear as they would to that animal.

This means that if the chosen creature was one of a number of non-primate mammals, for example, the red spectrum would be missing – humans and old world monkeys are among the only mammals that are able to see blue, yellow and red primary colors.

If the animal were a bird, reptile, amphibian or insect, however, the colors might be based on a mix of four or more primary colors. They also might include colors in the ultraviolet range, which we can't see without special full-spectrum cameras.

Borage family flowers as seen in human vision (left) and honeybee vision (right)(Credit: Jolyon Troscianko)

Far from being just a novelty, the software has already been used to track human female face color changes through the ovulation cycle (revealing colors that the human eye can't see), to study color change in crabs, and to understand how nightjar birds use camouflage to protect their eggs.

Development of the Multispectral Image Calibration and Analysis Toolbox was led by Dr. Jolyon Troscianko. It is available online for download, and was recently described in a paper published in the journal Methods in Ecology & Evolution.

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