Photonic Crystal Light Collectors in Fish Retina Improve Vision in Turbid Water

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Science  29 Jun 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6089, pp. 1700-1703
DOI: 10.1126/science.1218072

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Seeing in the Dark

Elephantnose fish are known to use electrosensing to navigate their murky freshwater environment. However, unlike some other animals from dark environments, they have retained their eyes and some dependence on vision. While most vertebrate vision optimizes either photon catch (for increased light capture) or visual acuity, Kreysing et al. (p. 1700) show that the unique structures of the grouped retinae found in the eyes of this species matches rod and cone sensitivity, which allows for the simultaneous use of both types of photoreceptors over a large range of dim light intensities.


Despite their diversity, vertebrate retinae are specialized to maximize either photon catch or visual acuity. Here, we describe a functional type that is optimized for neither purpose. In the retina of the elephantnose fish (Gnathonemus petersii), cone photoreceptors are grouped together within reflecting, photonic crystal–lined cups acting as macroreceptors, but rod photoreceptors are positioned behind these reflectors. This unusual arrangement matches rod and cone sensitivity for detecting color-mixed stimuli, whereas the photoreceptor grouping renders the fish insensitive to spatial noise; together, this enables more reliable flight reactions in the fish’s dim and turbid habitat as compared with fish lacking this retinal specialization.

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