Resolving the trade-off between visual sensitivity and spatial acuity - lessons from hawkmoths

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


The visual systems of many animals, particularly those active during the day, are optimized for high spatial acuity. However, at night, when photons are sparse and the visual signal competes with increased noise levels, fine spatial resolution cannot be sustained and is traded-off for the greater sensitivity required to see in dim light. High spatial acuity demands detectors and successive visual processing units whose receptive fields each cover only a small area of visual space, in order to reassemble a finely sampled and well resolved image. However, the smaller the sampled area, the fewer the photons that can be collected, and thus the worse the visual sensitivity becomes—leading to the classical trade-off between sensitivity and resolution. Nocturnal animals usually resolve this trade-off in favour of sensitivity, and thus have lower spatial acuity than their diurnal counterparts. Here we review results highlighting how hawkmoths, a highly visual group of insects with species active at different light intensities, resolve the trade-off between sensitivity and spatial resolution. We compare adaptations both in the optics and retina, as well as at higher levels of neural processing in a nocturnal and a diurnal hawkmoth species, and also give a perspective on the behavioral consequences. We broaden the scope of our review by drawing comparisons with the adaptive strategies used by other nocturnal and diurnal insects.


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Zoology
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1093-1103
JournalIntegrative and Comparative Biology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2017 Nov 1
Publication categoryResearch