The evolution of color vision in insects

Annu Rev Entomol. 2001;46:471-510. doi: 10.1146/annurev.ento.46.1.471.


We review the physiological, molecular, and neural mechanisms of insect color vision. Phylogenetic and molecular analyses reveal that the basic bauplan, UV-blue-green-trichromacy, appears to date back to the Devonian ancestor of all pterygote insects. There are variations on this theme, however. These concern the number of color receptor types, their differential expression across the retina, and their fine tuning along the wavelength scale. In a few cases (but not in many others), these differences can be linked to visual ecology. Other insects have virtually identical sets of color receptors despite strong differences in lifestyle. Instead of the adaptionism that has dominated visual ecology in the past, we propose that chance evolutionary processes, history, and constraints should be considered. In addition to phylogenetic analyses designed to explore these factors, we suggest quantifying variance between individuals and populations and using fitness measurements to test the adaptive value of traits identified in insect color vision systems.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Color Perception / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Insecta / classification
  • Insecta / physiology*
  • Photoreceptor Cells, Invertebrate
  • Phylogeny
  • Retinal Pigments / physiology


  • Retinal Pigments