Adaptive visual metamorphosis in a deep-sea hydrothermal vent crab

Nature. 2002 Nov 7;420(6911):68-70. doi: 10.1038/nature01144.


Hydrothermal vents along the mid-ocean ridges host ephemeral ecosystems of diverse endemic fauna including several crustacean species, some of which undergo planktonic development as larvae up to 1,000 m above and 100 km away from the vents. Little is known about the role of vision in the life history of vent fauna. Here we report that planktonic zoea larvae of the vent crab Bythograea thermydron possess image-forming compound eyes with a visual pigment sensitive to the blue light of mesopelagic waters. As they metamorphose and begin to descend to and settle at the vents, they lose their image-forming optics and develop high-sensitivity naked-retina eyes. The spectral absorbance of the visual pigment in these eyes shifts towards longer wavelengths from larva to postlarva to adult. This progressive visual metamorphosis trades imaging for increased sensitivity, and changes spectral sensitivity from the blue wavelengths of the larval environment towards the dim, longer wavelengths produced in the deeper bathypelagic vent environment of the adults. As hydrothermal vents produce light, vision may supplement thermal and chemical senses to orient postlarval settlement at vent sites.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Animals
  • Brachyura / anatomy & histology
  • Brachyura / growth & development*
  • Brachyura / physiology*
  • Environment*
  • Eye / anatomy & histology
  • Eye / chemistry
  • Eye / growth & development
  • Hot Temperature
  • Larva / anatomy & histology
  • Larva / growth & development
  • Larva / physiology
  • Light
  • Metamorphosis, Biological*
  • Oceans and Seas
  • Ocular Physiological Phenomena*
  • Plankton / physiology
  • Retinal Pigments / analysis
  • Steam
  • Vision, Ocular / physiology*


  • Retinal Pigments
  • Steam