Cone visual pigments of aquatic mammals

Vis Neurosci. Nov-Dec 2005;22(6):873-9. doi: 10.1017/S0952523805226159.


It has long been hypothesized that the visual systems of animals are evolutionarily adapted to their visual environment. The entrance many millions of years ago of mammals into the sea gave these new aquatic mammals completely novel visual surroundings with respect to light availability and predominant wavelengths. This study examines the cone opsins of marine mammals, hypothesizing, based on previous studies [Fasick et al. (1998) and Levenson & Dizon (2003)], that the deep-dwelling marine mammals would not have color vision because the pressure to maintain color vision in the dark monochromatic ocean environment has been relaxed. Short-wavelength-sensitive (SWS) and long-wavelength-sensitive (LWS) cone opsin genes from two orders (Cetacea and Sirenia) and an additional suborder (Pinnipedia) of aquatic mammals were amplified from genomic DNA (for SWS) and cDNA (for LWS) by PCR, cloned, and sequenced. All animals studied from the order Cetacea have SWS pseudogenes, whereas a representative from the order Sirenia has an intact SWS gene, for which the corresponding mRNA was found in the retina. One of the pinnipeds studied (harp seal) has an SWS pseudogene, while another species (harbor seal) appeared to have an intact SWS gene. However, no SWS cone opsin mRNA was found in the harbor seal retina, suggesting a promoter or splice site mutation preventing transcription of the gene. The LWS opsins from the different species were expressed in mammalian cells and reconstituted with the 11-cis-retinal chromophore in order to determine maximal absorption wavelengths (lambda(max)) for each. The deeper dwelling Cetacean species had blue shifted lambda(max) values compared to shallower-dwelling aquatic species. Taken together, these findings support the hypothesis that in the monochromatic oceanic habitat, the pressure to maintain color vision has been relaxed and mutations are retained in the SWS genes, resulting in pseudogenes. Additionally, LWS opsins are retained in the retina and, in deeper-dwelling animals, are blue shifted in lambda(max).

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Caniformia / physiology*
  • Cetacea / physiology*
  • DNA / genetics
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Mutagenesis, Site-Directed
  • Retinal Pigments / biosynthesis
  • Retinal Pigments / genetics
  • Retinal Pigments / physiology*
  • Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Rod Opsins / genetics
  • Rod Opsins / metabolism
  • Rod Opsins / physiology
  • Species Specificity
  • Trichechus / physiology*


  • Retinal Pigments
  • Rod Opsins
  • DNA