For whales and seals the ocean is not blue: a visual pigment loss in marine mammals

Eur J Neurosci. 2001 Apr;13(8):1520-8. doi: 10.1046/j.0953-816x.2001.01533.x.


Most terrestrial mammals have colour vision based on two spectrally different visual pigments located in two types of retinal cone photoreceptors, i.e. they are cone dichromats with long-to-middle-wave-sensitive (commonly green) L-cones and short-wave-sensitive (commonly blue) S-cones. With visual pigment-specific antibodies, we here demonstrate an absence of S-cones in the retinae of all whales and seals studied. The sample includes seven species of toothed whales (Odontoceti) and five species of marine carnivores (eared and earless seals). These marine mammals have only L-cones (cone monochromacy) and hence are essentially colour-blind. For comparison, the study also includes the wolf, ferret and European river otter (Carnivora) as well as the mouflon and pygmy hippopotamus (Artiodactyla), close terrestrial relatives of the seals and whales, respectively. These have a normal complement of S-cones and L-cones. The S-cone loss in marine species from two distant mammalian orders strongly argues for convergent evolution and an adaptive advantage of that trait in the marine visual environment. To us this suggests that the S-cones may have been lost in all whales and seals. However, as the spectral composition of light in clear ocean waters is increasingly blue-shifted with depth, an S-cone loss would seem particularly disadvantageous. We discuss some hypotheses to explain this paradox.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Color Vision Defects / physiopathology*
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Models, Biological
  • Oceans and Seas
  • Retinal Cone Photoreceptor Cells / physiopathology
  • Retinal Pigments / deficiency*
  • Retinal Rod Photoreceptor Cells / physiopathology
  • Seals, Earless / physiology*
  • Whales / physiology*


  • Retinal Pigments