The remarkable visual capacities of nocturnal insects: Vision at the limits with small eyes and tiny brains

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article


Nocturnal insects have evolved remarkable visual capacities, despite small eyes and tiny brains. They can see colour, control flight and land, react to faint movements in their environment, navigate using dim celestial cues and find their way home after a long and tortuous foraging trip using learned visual landmarks. These impressive visual abilities occur at light levels when only a trickle of photons are being absorbed by each photoreceptor, begging the question of how the visual system nonetheless generates the reliable signals needed to steer behaviour. In this review, I attempt to provide an answer to this question. Part of the answer lies in their compound eyes, which maximize light capture. Part lies in the slow responses and high gains of their photoreceptors, which improve the reliability of visual signals. And a very large part lies in the spatial and temporal summation of these signals in the optic lobe, a strategy that substantially enhances contrast sensitivity in dim light and allows nocturnal insects to see a brighter world, albeit a slower and coarser one. What is abundantly clear, however, is that during their evolution insects have overcome several serious potential visual limitations, endowing them with truly extraordinary night vision.


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Zoology


  • Compound eye, Insect, Navigation, Nocturnal vision, Spatial summation, Temporal summation
Original languageEnglish
Article number20160063
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1717
Publication statusPublished - 2017 Apr 5
Publication categoryResearch