Which animal has the best eyesight? - Thomas W. Cronin
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- TEDEd Animation
Studying the science of vision is made easier because every known eye relies on a light-sensing pigment (called a “visual pigment”), based on a protein called “opsin”, and all opsins are evolutionarily related and operate in essentially the same way. Besides this, all eyes are limited by the fundamental laws of physics, so optical principles always apply. Given the current diversity of eye types, it’s not surprising to learn that modern eyes probably evolved independently many times, but still have similar optical and visual pigment properties.
The study of how animal eyes have evolved and how they provide all the information needed by a particular animal inhabiting a particular environment is called “visual ecology”. Most of the information in the Ted-Ed video was discovered by visual ecologists. They work with visual systems mostly out of their own curiosity, and their research almost always fascinates most people with even a remote interest in science or animal vision. A recent example is the production “Life in Color”, done by 95-year-old David Attenborough. Other popular video accounts can be found on YouTube or The Atlantic. If you have access to Curiosity Stream, you can also see the more detailed account, “What Animals See”.
The research of visual ecologists is not only important because it is interesting and informs us about the world we live in. It also is used by imaging engineers to design new sensors and cameras, for underwater navigation or to assist in finding newly developing cancer cells.
Humans have eyes that do well in many ways, giving us an excellent “picture” of what’s happening in our surroundings. Overall, they are outstanding examples of evolutionary compromise, so that we are as well-informed about the natural world as we need to be. Yet, we have learned here that many animals – even ones as seemingly simple as houseflies - outperform us in various critical aspects of vision. We should wonder what other surprises the study of animal vision will bring us.
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