Multiple cone visual pigments and the potential for trichromatic colour vision in two species of elasmobranch

Nathan S. Hart*, Thomas J. Lisney, N. Justin Marshall, Shaun P. Collin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

69 Citations (Scopus)


Elasmobranchs (sharks, skates and rays) are the modern descendents of the first jawed vertebrates and, as apex predators, often occupy the highest trophic levels of aquatic (predominantly marine) ecosystems. However, despite their crucial role in the structure of marine communities, their importance both to commercial and to recreational fisheries, and the inherent interest in their role in vertebrate evolution, very little is known about their visual capabilities, especially with regard to whether or not they have the potential for colour vision. Using microspectrophotometry, we show that the retinae of the giant shovelnose ray (Rhinobatos typus) and the eastern shovelnose ray (Aptychotrema rostrata) contain three spectrally distinct cone visual pigments with wavelengths of maximum absorbance (λmax) at 477, 502 and 561 nm and at 459, 492 and 553 nm, respectively. The retinae of R. typus and A. rostrata also contain a single type of rod visual pigment with λmax at 504 and 498 nm, respectively. R. typus, living in the same estuarine waters as A. rostrata, were found to have identical visual pigments to R. typus inhabiting coral reef flats, despite a considerable difference in habitat spectral radiance. This is the first time that multiple cone visual pigments have been measured directly in an elasmobranch. The finding raises the possibility that some species are able to discriminate colour - a visual ability traditionally thought to be lacking in this vertebrate class - and it is evident that the visual ecology of elasmobranchs is far more complex than once thought.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4587-4594
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number26
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • Aptychotrema rostrata
  • Elasmobranch
  • Microspectrophotometry
  • Rhinobatos typus
  • Shark
  • Shovelnose ray
  • Vision
  • Visual pigment


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