Many birds including zebra finches can see UV light. Image: David Snelling (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A bird’s-eye view

Birds tune their light sensitive cells to maximise the number of colours they see.

The pioneering eye doctor André Rochon-Duvigneaud once wrote that “a bird is a wing guided by an eye”. With this statement, he underscored the sophistication of the bird’s eye, which surpasses our own in several respects. Compared to humans who have three types of cone photoreceptor, birds have four, meaning they can see an extra dimension of color. Birds precisely tune their violet-, blue-, green- and red-sensitive cones by coupling light-sensitive proteins with light-filtering pigments called carotenoids. This combination of sensors and filters increases the number of colors a bird can see.

Another exceptional aspect of bird vision is that some species — for example finches and sparrows — can see ultraviolet (UV) light. This ability results from a change in the light-sensitive protein within the violet cone photoreceptor that shifts its sensitivity towards UV light. This expansion of vision into the UV is complemented by a shift in the sensitivity of the blue cone photoreceptor. However, it is not well understood exactly how the sensitivity of the blue cone is shifted and how this shift impacts color vision.

To find answers to these questions, Matthew Toomey and colleagues characterized the light-filtering carotenoid pigments from bird species with violet or UV sensitivity, and used computational models of bird vision to predict how these pigments affect the number of colors a bird can see. This approach revealed that blue cone sensitivity is fine-tuned through a change in the chemical structure of the light-filtering carotenoid pigments within the photoreceptor. Computational models also indicated the sensitivity of the violet and blue cones must shift in a coordinated manner to maximize the number of colors a bird can see.

These results suggest that both blue and violet cone cells have been fine-tuned during evolution to enhance color vision in birds. An important next step is to investigate the underlying molecular mechanisms that coordinate the modification of the carotenoid pigments and the tuning of light-sensitive proteins in a wide range of bird species.

To find out more

Read the eLife research paper on which this story is based: Complementary shifts in photoreceptor spectral tuning unlock the full adaptive potential of ultraviolet vision in birds (July 12, 2016).
Listen to Matthew Toomey talk about colour vision in birds in this episode of the eLife podcast.