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BACKGROUND: The colours of flowers are of key interest to plant and pollination biologists. An increasing number of studies investigates the importance of saturation of flower colours (often called "spectral purity" or "chroma") for visibility to pollinators, but the conceptual, physiological and behavioural foundations for these metrics as well as used calculations rest on slender foundations.
METHODS: We discuss the caveats of colour attributes that are derived from human perception, and in particular spectral purity and chroma, as variables in flower colour analysis. We reanalysed seven published datasets encompassing 774 measured reflectance spectra to test for correlations between colour contrast, spectral purity and chroma.
MAIN FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS: We identify several concerns with common calculation procedures in animal colour spaces. Studies on animal colour vision provide no ground to assume that any pollinator perceives (or responds to) saturation, chroma or spectral purity in the way humans do. A reanalysis of published datasets revealed that values for colour contrast between flowers and their background is highly correlated with measures for spectral purity and chroma, which invalidates treating these factors as independent variables as is currently commonplace. Strikingly, spectral purity and chroma - which both are metrics for saturation and are often used synonymously - are not correlated at all. We conclude that alternative, behaviourally validated metrics for the visibility of flowers to pollinators, such as colour contrast and achromatic contrast, are better in understanding the role of flower colour in plant-pollinator signalling.
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