Diversity of mammalian photoreceptor properties: adaptations to habitat and lifestyle?

Anat Rec A Discov Mol Cell Evol Biol. 2005 Nov;287(1):1001-12. doi: 10.1002/ar.a.20262.


All mammalian retinae contain rod photoreceptors for low-light vision and cone photoreceptors for daylight and color vision. Most nonprimate mammals have dichromatic color vision based on two cone types with spectrally different visual pigments: a short-wavelength-sensitive (S-)cone and a long-wavelength-sensitive (L-)cone. Superimposed on this basic similarity, there are remarkable differences between species. This article reviews some striking examples. The density ratio of cones to rods ranges from 1:200 in the most nocturnal to 20:1 in a few diurnal species. In some species, the proportion of the spectral cone types and their distribution across the retina deviate from the pattern found in most mammals, including a complete absence of S-cones. Depending on species, the spectral sensitivity of the L-cone pigment may peak in the green, yellow, or orange, and that of the S-cone pigment in the blue, violet, or near-ultraviolet. While exclusive expression of one pigment per cone is the rule, some species feature coexpression of the L- and S-pigment in a significant proportion of their cones. It is widely assumed that all these variations represent adaptations to specific visual needs associated with particular habitats and lifestyles. However, in many cases we have not yet identified the adaptive value of a given photoreceptor arrangement. Comparative anatomy is a fruitful approach to explore the range of possible arrangements within the blueprint of the mammalian retina and to identify species with particularly interesting or puzzling patterns that deserve further scrutiny with physiological and behavioral assays.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Animals
  • Biodiversity*
  • Color Perception / physiology
  • Humans
  • Life Style
  • Retinal Cone Photoreceptor Cells / anatomy & histology*
  • Retinal Rod Photoreceptor Cells / anatomy & histology*