Retinal ganglion cell topography and spatial resolving power in penguins

João Paulo Coimbra*, Paul M. Nolan, Shaun P. Collin, Nathan S. Hart

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Citations (Scopus)


Penguins are a group of flightless seabirds that exhibit numerous morphological, behavioral and ecological adaptations to their amphibious lifestyle, but little is known about the topographic organization of neurons in their retinas. In this study, we used retinal wholemounts and stereological methods to estimate the total number and topographic distribution of retinal ganglion cells in addition to an anatomical estimate of spatial resolving power in two species of penguins: the little penguin, Eudyptula minor, and the king penguin, Aptenodytes patagonicus. The total number of ganglion cells per retina was approximately 1,200,000 in the little penguin and 1,110,000 in the king penguin. The topographic distribution of retinal ganglion cells in both species revealed the presence of a prominent horizontal visual streak with steeper gradients in the little penguin. The little penguin retinas showed ganglion cell density peaks of 21,867 cells/mm2, affording spatial resolution in water of 17.07-17.46 cycles/degree (12.81-13.09 cycles/degree in air). In contrast, the king penguin showed a relatively lower peak density of ganglion cells of 14,222 cells/mm2, but-due to its larger eye-slightly higher spatial resolution in water of 20.40 cycles/degree (15.30 cycles/degree in air). In addition, we mapped the distribution of giant ganglion cells in both penguin species using Nissl-stained wholemounts. In both species, topographic mapping of this cell type revealed the presence of an area gigantocellularis with a concentric organization of isodensity contours showing a peak in the far temporal retina of approximately 70 cells/mm2 in the little penguin and 39 cells/mm2 in the king penguin. Giant ganglion cell densities gradually fall towards the outermost isodensity contours revealing the presence of a vertically organized streak. In the little penguin, we confirmed our cytological characterization of giant ganglion cells using immunohistochemistry for microtubule-associated protein 2. This suite of retinal specializations, which is also observed in the closely related procellariiform seabirds, affords the eyes of the little and king penguins panoramic surveillance of the horizon and motion detection in the frontal visual field.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)254-268
Number of pages15
JournalBrain, Behavior and Evolution
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2012
Externally publishedYes


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