Avian visual pigments: characteristics, spectral tuning, and evolution

Nathan S. Hart*, David M. Hunt

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

262 Citations (Scopus)


Birds are highly visual animals with complex visual systems. In this article, we discuss the spectral characteristics and genetic mechanisms of the spectral tuning of avian visual pigments. The avian retina contains a single type of rod, four spectrally distinct types of single cone, and a single type of double cone photoreceptor. Only the single cones are thought to be involved in color discrimination; double cones are thought to be involved in achromatic visual tasks, such as movement detection and pattern recognition. Visual pigment opsin protein genes in birds are orthologous to those in other vertebrates and have a common origin early in vertebrate evolution. Mechanisms of spectral tuning in the different classes of avian cone visual pigments show similarities in most instances to those in other vertebrates. The exception is the ultraviolet/violet (SWS1) class of pigments; phylogenetic evidence indicates that the ancestral vertebrate SWS1 pigment was ultraviolet sensitive (UVS), with different molecular mechanisms accounting for the generation of violet-sensitive (VS) pigments in different vertebrate classes. In birds, however, UVS visual pigments have re-evolved from an ancestral avian VS pigment by using a novel molecular mechanism not seen in other vertebrate classes. This has occurred independently in four of the 14 avian orders examined to date, although the adaptive significance of this is currently unknown.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)S7-S26
Number of pages20
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue numberSupplement
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • Bird
  • Cone oil droplet
  • Opsin
  • Visual ecology
  • Visual pigment


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