Unique morphology of the human eye and its adaptive meaning: comparative studies on external morphology of the primate eye

J Hum Evol. 2001 May;40(5):419-35. doi: 10.1006/jhev.2001.0468.


In order to clarify the morphological uniqueness of the human eye and to obtain cues to understanding its adaptive significance, we compared the external morphology of the primate eye by measuring nearly half of all extant primate species. The results clearly showed exceptional features of the human eye: (1) the exposed white sclera is void of any pigmentation, (2) humans possess the largest ratio of exposed sclera in the eye outline, and (3) the eye outline is extraordinarily elongated in the horizontal direction. The close correlation of the parameters reflecting (2) and (3) with habitat type or body size of the species examined suggested that these two features are adaptations for extending the visual field by eyeball movement, especially in the horizontal direction. Comparison of eye coloration and facial coloration around the eye suggested that the dark coloration of exposed sclera of nonhuman primates is an adaptation to camouflage the gaze direction against other individuals and/or predators, and that the white sclera of the human eye is an adaptation to enhance the gaze signal. The uniqueness of human eye morphology among primates illustrates the remarkable difference between human and other primates in the ability to communicate using gaze signals.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Communication
  • Eye / anatomy & histology*
  • Eye Color / physiology
  • Eye Movements / physiology
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Iris / anatomy & histology
  • Primates / anatomy & histology*
  • Sclera / anatomy & histology
  • Videotape Recording