Evolution of eye size and shape in primates

J Hum Evol. 2007 Mar;52(3):294-313. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2006.09.006. Epub 2006 Nov 1.


Strepsirrhine and haplorhine primates exhibit highly derived features of the visual system that distinguish them from most other mammals. Comparative data link the evolution of these visual specializations to the sequential acquisition of nocturnal visual predation in the primate stem lineage and diurnal visual predation in the anthropoid stem lineage. However, it is unclear to what extent these shifts in primate visual ecology were accompanied by changes in eye size and shape. Here we investigate the evolution of primate eye morphology using a comparative study of a large sample of mammalian eyes. Our analysis shows that primates differ from other mammals in having large eyes relative to body size and that anthropoids exhibit unusually small corneas relative to eye size and body size. The large eyes of basal primates probably evolved to improve visual acuity while maintaining high sensitivity in a nocturnal context. The reduced corneal sizes of anthropoids reflect reductions in the size of the dioptric apparatus as a means of increasing posterior nodal distance to improve visual acuity. These data support the conclusion that the origin of anthropoids was associated with a change in eye shape to improve visual acuity in the context of a diurnal predatory habitus.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Body Size
  • Cornea / anatomy & histology
  • Eye / anatomy & histology*
  • Haplorhini / anatomy & histology*
  • Head / anatomy & histology
  • Orbit / anatomy & histology
  • Organ Size
  • Phylogeny
  • Primates / anatomy & histology*
  • Species Specificity
  • Vision, Ocular