A butterfly eye's view of birds

Bioessays. 2008 Nov;30(11-12):1151-62. doi: 10.1002/bies.20828.


The striking color patterns of butterflies and birds have long interested biologists. But how these animals see color is less well understood. Opsins are the protein components of the visual pigments of the eye. Color vision has evolved in butterflies through opsin gene duplications, through positive selection at individual opsin loci, and by the use of filtering pigments. By contrast, birds have retained the same opsin complement present in early-jawed vertebrates, and their visual system has diversified primarily through tuning of the short-wavelength-sensitive photoreceptors, rather than by opsin duplication or the use of filtering elements. Butterflies and birds have evolved photoreceptors that might use some of the same amino acid sites for generating similar spectral phenotypes across approximately 540 million years of evolution, when rhabdomeric and ciliary-type opsins radiated during the early Cambrian period. Considering the similarities between the two taxa, it is surprising that the eyes of birds are not more diverse. Additional taxonomic sampling of birds may help clarify this mystery.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acids / chemistry
  • Animals
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Butterflies / physiology*
  • Chickens
  • Classification
  • Color Vision / physiology*
  • Gene Duplication*
  • Opsins / genetics*
  • Phenotype
  • Photoreceptor Cells
  • Pigmentation*
  • Retina / physiology
  • Ultraviolet Rays
  • Vertebrates


  • Amino Acids
  • Opsins