The eyes of deep-sea fish. I: Lens pigmentation, tapeta and visual pigments

Prog Retin Eye Res. 1998 Oct;17(4):597-636. doi: 10.1016/s1350-9462(98)00002-0.


Deep-sea fish, defined as those living below 200 m, inhabit a most unusual photic environment, being exposed to two sources of visible radiation; very dim downwelling sunlight and bioluminescence, both of which are, in most cases, maximal at wavelengths around 450-500 nm. This paper summarises the reflective properties of the ocular tapeta often found in these animals, the pigmentation of their lenses and the absorption characteristics of their visual pigments. Deep-sea tapeta usually appear blue to the human observer, reflecting mainly shortwave radiation. However, reflection in other parts of the spectrum is not uncommon and uneven tapetal distribution across the retina is widespread. Perhaps surprisingly, given the fact that they live in a photon limited environment, the lenses of some deep-sea teleosts are bright yellow, absorbing much of the shortwave part of the spectrum. Such lenses contain a variety of biochemically distinct pigments which most likely serve to enhance the visibility of bioluminescent signals. Of the 195 different visual pigments characterised by either detergent extract or microspectrophotometry in the retinae of deep-sea fishes, ca. 87% have peak absorbances within the range 468-494 nm. Modelling shows that this is most likely an adaptation for the detection of bioluminescence. Around 13% of deep-sea fish have retinae containing more than one visual pigment. Of these, we highlight three genera of stomiid dragonfishes, which uniquely produce far red bioluminescence from suborbital photophores. Using a combination of longwave-shifted visual pigments and in one species (Malacosteus niger) a chlorophyll-related photosensitizer, these fish have evolved extreme red sensitivity enabling them to see their own bioluminescence and giving them a private spectral waveband invisible to other inhabitants of the deep-ocean.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Crystallins / chemistry
  • Crystallins / physiology*
  • Fishes / anatomy & histology
  • Fishes / physiology*
  • Lens, Crystalline / chemistry
  • Lens, Crystalline / physiology*
  • Oceans and Seas
  • Pigments, Biological / chemistry
  • Pigments, Biological / physiology*
  • Retinal Pigments / chemistry
  • Retinal Pigments / physiology*


  • Crystallins
  • Pigments, Biological
  • Retinal Pigments