Ultraviolet vision in birds: the importance of transparent eye media.

Olle Lind, Mindaugas Mitkus, Peter Olsson, Almut Kelber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

75 Citations (SciVal)


Ultraviolet (UV)-sensitive visual pigments are widespread in the animal kingdom but many animals, for example primates, block UV light from reaching their retina by pigmented lenses. Birds have UV-sensitive (UVS) visual pigments with sensitivity maxima around 360-373 nm (UVS) or 402-426 nm (violet-sensitive, VS). We describe how these pigments are matched by the ocular media transmittance in 38 bird species. Birds with UVS pigments have ocular media that transmit more UV light (wavelength of 50% transmittance, λT0.5, 323 nm) than birds with VS pigments (λT0.5, 358 nm). Yet, visual models predict that colour discrimination in bright light is mostly dependent on the visual pigment (UVS or VS) and little on the ocular media. We hypothesize that the precise spectral tuning of the ocular media is mostly relevant for detecting weak UV signals, e.g. in dim hollow-nests of passerines and parrots. The correlation between eye size and UV transparency of the ocular media suggests little or no lens pigmentation. Therefore, only small birds gain the full advantage from shifting pigment sensitivity from VS to UVS. On the other hand, some birds with VS pigments have unexpectedly low UV transmission of the ocular media, probably because of UV blocking lens pigmentation.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20132209
JournalRoyal Society of London. Proceedings B. Biological Sciences
Issue number1774
Publication statusPublished - 2014

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Zoology


  • ocular media transmittance
  • ultraviolet sensitivity
  • colour vision
  • bird
  • evolution


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