Scotopic colour vision in nocturnal hawkmoths

Nature. 2002 Oct 31;419(6910):922-5. doi: 10.1038/nature01065.


Humans are colour-blind at night, and it has been assumed that this is true of all animals. But colour vision is as useful for discriminating objects at night as it is during the day. Here we show, through behavioural experiments, that the nocturnal hawkmoth Deilephila elpenor uses colour vision to discriminate coloured stimuli at intensities corresponding to dim starlight (0.0001 cd x m(-2)). It can do this even if the illumination colour changes, thereby showing colour constancy-a property of true colour vision systems. In identical conditions humans are completely colour-blind. Our calculations show that the possession of three photoreceptor classes reduces the absolute sensitivity of the eye, which indicates that colour vision has a high ecological relevance in nocturnal moths. In addition, the photoreceptors of a single ommatidium absorb too few photons for reliable discrimination, indicating that spatial and/or temporal summation must occur for colour vision to be possible. Taken together, our results show that colour vision occurs at nocturnal intensities in a biologically relevant context.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Color
  • Color Perception / physiology*
  • Conditioning, Psychological / physiology
  • Cues
  • Darkness*
  • Discrimination Learning / physiology
  • Humans
  • Light
  • Lighting
  • Moths / physiology*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Photoreceptor Cells, Invertebrate / physiology
  • Reward
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Ultraviolet Rays