Cuttlefish have high definition polarization vision, researchers discover

High definition polarization vision discovered in cuttlefish
Seeing the world through the eyes of a cuttlefish. Credit: Dr Shelby Temple, University of Bristol.

Cuttlefish have the most acute polarization vision yet found in any animal, researchers at the University of Bristol have discovered by showing them movies on a modified LCD computer screen to test their eyesight.

Cuttlefish and their colourblind cousins, and , see aspects of light – including polarized light – that are invisible to humans, giving them a covert communication channel. The Bristol study, published today in Current Biology found that cuttlefish were much more sensitive to polarization than previously thought.

Lead researcher Dr Shelby Temple from the Ecology of Vision Laboratory at the University of Bristol said: "Just like colour and intensity, polarization is an aspect of light that can provide animals with information about the world around them. If you've ever put on a pair of polarized sunglasses glasses to cut the glare from water or the road, or gone to a recent 3D movie, then you've observed some aspects of polarized light."

High definition polarization vision discovered in cuttlefish
A shrimp seen through the polarization sensitive eyes of a cuttlefish. On the left is how it looks to us, on the right is an interpretation of how it might look to a colourblind cuttlefish or octopus that see polarization angles but not colour. The false colours represent the different polarization angles as provided in the coloured triangle in the top left. Credit: Dr Shelby Temple, University of Bristol.

With collaborators at The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, the team gave cuttlefish an eye exam; but instead of measuring their acuity they measured the smallest difference in the angle of polarization the cuttlefish could detect.

Since the team could not ask the cuttlefish what they could see, they took advantage of the chameleon-like colour changes that cuttlefish use for camouflage as a way of measuring whether the animals could detect the polarized stimuli.

High definition polarization vision discovered in cuttlefish
Mourning cuttlefish Sepia plangon. Credit: Dr Shelby Temple, University of Bristol.

"We modified LCD computer monitors to show changes in polarization instead of changes in colour, and then played videos of approaching objects and watched for changes in skin colour patterns to determine if the cuttlefish could see small changes in polarization contrast," said Dr Temple. "Cuttlefish change colour all the time and respond to the slightest movement so they are an excellent model.

"Cuttlefish were much more sensitive than we expected. It was previously thought that polarization sensitivity was limited to about 10-20 degree differences, but we found that cuttlefish could respond to differences as small as one degree."

In addition to measuring the limits of polarization vision in the cuttlefish, the team also modelled how underwater scenes might look to an animal that has such high-resolution polarization vision. Using colours instead of changes in polarization angle they created images of the polarized world that humans can see and showed that there is much more information available in the polarization dimension than was previously known.

Co-author Professor Justin Marshall of The University of Queensland said: "These extraordinary findings suggest that we need to reexamine how we have been measuring the visual world underwater. may be using the polarization of light much like we use colour, which means we may need to look at camouflage and communication underwater in a whole new way."

Explore further

Capturing an octopus-eye view of the Great Barrier Reef

More information: High-resolution polarisation vision in a cuttlefish. S. E. Temple, V. Pignatelli, T. Cook, M. J. How, N. W. Roberts, and N. J. Marshall in Current Biology (feb 21).
Journal information: Current Biology

Citation: Cuttlefish have high definition polarization vision, researchers discover (2012, February 20) retrieved 17 August 2019 from
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Feb 20, 2012
Is this yet another case where we assume a species is color blind simply because we haven't figured a way to ask it? I find it hard to believe.

This animal has an elaborate mechanism with which it can camouflage itself. It also uses color to communicate. And it does this with black-and-white vision??

At the very least, it would haven been prudent to explain why "we" think it is color blind.

Feb 20, 2012
What? You realize we understand the mechanics of vision very well right? Simply examining the eye of an organism will tell us what wavelengths of light are capable of being distinguished by it...

I find it is the case that most people's greatest challenge isn't their ignorance of specific information, it is instead their ignorance that the information even exists. The magnitude of what we (collectively, humanity) know and understand is severely underestimated by most laypersons. Don't even get me started on what we do to light in fiber optic communications with waveguides, wavelength division multiplexing, etc... Suffice to say we know a great deal about how light works, and also about how vision works. We could easily give sight to the blind if it were a matter of theory alone, the challenge is in the practical application of the knowledge, not the knowledge itself..

Feb 20, 2012
anyway, this statement "how it might look to a colourblind cuttlefish or octopus that see polarization angles but not colour" suggests to me not that they've determined that cuttlefish are colorblind, rather that in the context of this example, only the parameters of the cuttlefish's polarization perception was left in while any information regarding color was just plain left out - whether there is any or not.

I didn't really get the feel that they say cuttlefish are colorblind, rather that they left color perception out of the experiment.

Feb 20, 2012
Fascinating insights... re. chromaticism, i like G. C. Huth's geometric model and my own personal hunch is that most animals with colour sensitivity would have about an octave of bandwidth, just like us, likewise divided into seven distinct colours, but transposed up or down according to their specific habitats - so our 'green' may align with another species' red for example... suffice to say i base this on no objective evidence whatsoever, apart from a pet theory on the primacy of octave equivalence...

Feb 20, 2012
I suppose that the retinas of cuttlefish and octopuses have been examined and found to lack cone cells (color receptors).

Feb 20, 2012
To use camouflage, one needs to become the same color as the background. Unless this species can see color, it has to have some other method of exactly perceiving the color of the background. If this is the case, it really would have been correct to mention it.

Feb 20, 2012
The mechanism of octopus camouflage may be a much more tricky. Just try to imagine, how you would camouflage yourself, even if you would have a perfect color vision. And the lack of cone cells doesn't imply the absence of color vision, because the compound eyes of octopi developed independently for quite different light conditions. The differentiation of retina cells to rod and cones would be unnecessary under such a condition. The spiders can recognize colors well, yet they have no rods and cones.

Feb 20, 2012
Cuttlefish are remarkable and intelligent creatures. Staring at a large individual just inches from my face in an aquarium, while it stared right back at me with those eyes, I could not help but to feel that I was looking into the eyes of an alien intelligence. It was an amazing experience.

Feb 21, 2012
What techniques are used to measure the polarization in the prawn photo?

have they just aken a whole lot of photos with the filter set at different angles?

Feb 24, 2012
Hi to address some of your quesitons
Cuttlefish are colour blind.
Nearly all cephalopods have only one visual pigment and one type of photoreceptor, which means on a physiological level they have no basis for possessing colour vision. Behaviourally, octopus, cuttlefish and squid have been tested repeatedly and no evidence for colour vision has ever been found.

So you might ask, how can they be so good at camouflage...well it is simply really, while they are colour blind their predators are not, and so through selection (the main driving force of evolution) those cephalopods that could not match the background colour and texture well enough were removed from the population. So while they are colourblind, evolution is not.

As for the polarization imaging. You (Graeme) were exactly correct, we took three images at 0, 45 and 90 degrees and then use a custom program to calculate the angles of polarization.

Shelby Temple (author of the paper examined here)

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