Color research might also improve human nutrition, given that colors in plants are often tied to health benefits. There has been great interest in recent years in anthocyanin pigments that, depending on their pH, may appear red, purple, or blue. Numerous studies show that they and associated flavonoids — biologically active, water-soluble plant compounds — help to protect against a myriad of human diseases.
Scientific advances could also reveal when colors first emerged on Earth. A chicken and egg-type question could be: Which came first, color or the ability of any species to see it?
Recent studies have taken color science back to the Dinosaur Age, given that pigments can be preserved in the archaeological record. They have enabled researchers to recreate the colors of certain dinosaurs. Some, like maniraptoran dinosaurs, could be quite flashy, while others like a species of armored dinosaur, sported mellower reddish-brown hues.
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Paleontologists have not yet determined what these different colors and patterns might have meant. Even for living animals, color patterns largely remain a mystery. Caro, for example, is currently conducting research on why biting flies are reticent about landing on black and white striped surfaces — one reason why zebras look the way they do. In the future, certain patterns on clothing could help to deter particular insects from bothering humans.
Caro is also studying the principles that govern coloration in plants and animals, not only for insect deterrence, but also for camouflage, warning signals, sexual cues, signaling to other species, thermoregulation, and more.
“We take color for granted, yet it is an important part of life,” Caro said. “We use color to recognize, plants, animals, and individual people, but most of the time we never stop to ask why is the giant panda is black and white or the giraffe dappled?”
“Understanding the functions of coloration,” he added, “can provide a new window into appreciating beauty in nature, and also encourage children to enjoy nature and the environment — something that is disappearing in western societies.”