Colour threshold discrimination ellipses were measured for a number of states of chromatic adaptation and a range of luminance levels using the Colour Assessment and Diagnosis (CAD) test. An analysis of these results was carried out by examining the cone excitation signals along the cardinal axes that correspond to detection thresholds in the +L-M (reddish), -L+M (greenish), +S (bluish) and -S (yellowish) colour directions. The results reveal a strong linear relationship between the excitations induced by the adapting background field in each cone class and the corresponding changes needed for threshold detection. These findings suggest that the cone excitation change for threshold detection of colour signals is always the same for a given background excitation level (in any cone class), independent of the excitations generated in the other cone classes. These observations have been used to develop a model to predict colour detection thresholds for any specified background luminance and chromaticity within the range of values investigated in this study (e.g., luminances in the range 0.3 to 31 cd.m(-2) and chromaticities within the gamut of typical CRT displays). Predicted colour thresholds were found to be in close agreement with measured values with errors that do not, in general, exceed the measured within-subject variability.