Hidden in plain sight: the ecology and physiology of organismal transparency

Biol Bull. 2001 Dec;201(3):301-18. doi: 10.2307/1543609.


Despite the prevalence and importance of transparency in organisms, particularly pelagic species, it is a poorly understood characteristic. This article reviews the current state of knowledge on the distribution, ecology, and physical basis of biological transparency. Particular attention is paid to the distribution of transparent species relative to their optical environment, the relationship between transparency and visual predation, the physics of transparency, and what is known about the anatomical and ultrastructural modifications required to achieve this condition. Transparency is shown to be primarily a pelagic trait, uncommon in other aquatic habitats and extremely rare on land. Experimental and theoretical studies in terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems have shown that transparency is a successful form of camouflage, and that several visual adaptations seem to counter it. The physical basis of transparency is still poorly understood, but anatomical observations and mathematical models show that there are various routes to transparency. Future avenues for research include examination of the ultrastructure and optical properties of transparent tissue, exploring the link between transparent species and special visual modifications in the species they interact with, and analysis of the evolution of transparency using comparative methods.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Ecology
  • Fishes / anatomy & histology*
  • Fishes / physiology
  • Invertebrates / anatomy & histology*
  • Invertebrates / physiology
  • Invertebrates / ultrastructure
  • Marine Biology*
  • Mollusca / anatomy & histology*
  • Mollusca / physiology
  • Mollusca / ultrastructure
  • Pigmentation
  • Polychaeta / anatomy & histology*
  • Polychaeta / physiology
  • Polychaeta / ultrastructure
  • Scyphozoa / anatomy & histology*
  • Scyphozoa / physiology
  • Scyphozoa / ultrastructure