Reviving a neglected celestial underwater polarization compass for aquatic animals

Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2006 Feb;81(1):111-5. doi: 10.1017/S1464793105006883. Epub 2005 Nov 7.


Substantial in situ measurements on clear days in a variety of marine environments at depths in the water down to 200 m have demonstrated the ubiquitous daytime presence of sun-related e-vector (=plane of polarization) patterns. In most lines of sight the e-vectors tilt from horizontal towards the sun at angles equal to the apparent underwater refracted zenith angle of the sun. A maximum tilt-angle of approximately 48.5 degrees , is reached in horizontal lines of sight at 90 degrees to the sun's bearing (the plane of incidence). This tilt limit is set by Snell's window, when the sun is on the horizon. The biological literature since the 1980s has been pervaded with assumptions that daytime aquatic e-vectors are mainly horizontal. This review attempts to set the record straight concerning the potential use of underwater e-vectors as a visual compass and to reopen the field to productive research on aquatic animals' orientation and navigation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Biophysical Phenomena
  • Biophysics
  • Mathematics
  • Orientation / physiology*
  • Photometry
  • Rotation
  • Space Perception
  • Sunlight*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Water


  • Water