Most known starfish species possess a compound eye at the tip of each arm, which, except for the lack of true optics, resembles an arthropod compound eye. Although these compound eyes have been known for about two centuries, no visually guided behaviour has ever been directly associated with their presence. There are indications that they are involved in negative phototaxis but this may also be governed by extraocular photoreceptors. Here, we show that the eyes of the coral-reef-associated starfish Linckia laevigata are slow and colour blind. The eyes are capable of true image formation although with low spatial resolution. Further, our behavioural experiments reveal that only specimens with intact eyes can navigate back to their reef habitat when displaced, demonstrating that this is a visually guided behaviour. This is, to our knowledge, the first report of a function of starfish compound eyes. We also show that the spectral sensitivity optimizes the contrast between the reef and the open ocean. Our results provide an example of an eye supporting only low-resolution vision, which is believed to be an essential stage in eye evolution, preceding the high-resolution vision required for detecting prey, predators and conspecifics.
Keywords: Linckia; compound eye; coral reef; echinoderm; navigation.