The Evolution of Color Vision in Monkeys: From Nucleotides to Ecology

By Merle Heidemann1, Peter J.T. White1, Jim Smith1

1. Michigan State University

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This case study examines the evolution color vision in Old World and New World monkeys from multiple biological perspectives. This integrative approach employs both problem-based learning techniques and directed questions as students move through a series of modules that takes them from nucleotides through alternative alleles to protein function to ecology and phylogenetics. The modules (ecology, cell biology/protein function, genetics and phylogenetics) can to be used in any order as dictated by course objectives and structure. The case study is appropriate for a basic undergraduate biology course or for genetics, ecology and cell biology upper level courses. A key feature of the case study is weaving evolutionary thinking into the biology curriculum. The research phase of problem-based learning is supported by a series of slides and simulations that can be downloaded from the authors' site where they are stored, edited, and used according to instructors' needs.


  • Compare the foraging abilities of di- and trichromatic monkeys as they connect to evolutionary theory (i.e., environment-dependent selective advantage).
  • Describe the differences and similarities among the three types of receptor proteins responsible for color vision, as they connect to evolutionary theory (i.e., cellular processes resulting in a novel phenotype).
  • Explain how differences in nucleotide sequences lead to differences in gene expression and cell function, as they connect to evolutionary theory (i.e., the connection between genotype and phenotype and the role of mutation in producing new phenotypes).
  • Use geological and phylogenetic data to infer when the separation between Old World and New World monkeys happened.
  • Explain that the study of evolution requires learning across the biological sciences curriculum and provide relevant examples.
  • Engage in independent research.

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