A new camera system technology is set to transform how ecologists and filmmakers understand and visualize the color perceptions of various animals in their natural habitats.
The research was led by Vera Vasas of the University of Sussex, UK, and colleagues from the Hanley Color Lab at George Mason University, US.
How animals perceive color
Traditionally, different species’ unique visual worlds remained largely a mystery to humans. Many animals, like honeybees and some birds, perceive colors beyond human capability, such as ultraviolet light.
This difference stems from the varied photoreceptors in their eyes. Understanding these color perceptions is crucial for insights into animal communication and navigation.
While false color imaging offered a glimpse into this world, it was hampered by limitations like time-intensive processes, specific lighting requirements, and an inability to capture movement.
Addressing these challenges, the research team has developed a cutting-edge camera and software system capable of recording and processing videos under natural lighting conditions.
Camera sees colors as animals do
As seen in this image, the system records in four color channels: blue, green, red, and UV. It then converts this data into “perceptual units” — essentially translating it into a format that replicates animal vision based on known photoreceptor data.
Impressively, when compared to traditional spectrophotometry methods, this new system boasts over 92% accuracy in predicting perceived colors that animals see.
This innovation opens unprecedented avenues for scientific research. It equips scientists with a tool to explore the dynamic, colorful world as seen by various species.
Additionally, filmmakers can now create more accurate and engaging representations of animal vision in their works.
The practicality of this system is further enhanced by its construction from readily available commercial cameras, encased in a modular, 3D-printed housing.
Moreover, the accompanying software is open-source, inviting further development and adaptation within the research community.
For example, in this image, the camera captures a mockingbird in the green forest, but this beautiful nature scene is shown as it would look through avian eyes.
Bridging the gap between humans and animals
Senior author Daniel Hanley eloquently sums up the project’s significance.
“We’ve long been fascinated by how animals see the world. Modern techniques in sensory ecology have let us infer static scenes from an animal’s perspective. However, understanding their perception of moving objects — crucial for activities like locating food or selecting a mate — remained elusive,” Hanley explained.
“Our development introduces tools for ecologists and filmmakers to accurately capture and display animal-perceived colors in motion, marking a significant advancement in our study of animal behavior and perception,” he concluded.
In summary, this pioneering camera system not only signifies a technological breakthrough, but also marks a new chapter in our understanding of the animal kingdom, bringing us closer to experiencing the world through their eyes.
New camera demonstrates how animals see color
Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) in avian vision
In this video, 2 northern mockingbirds are seen interacting in a tree, in avian false colors. Specifically, the video shows blue, green, and red quantum catches as blue, green, and red, respectively, and UV quantum catches are overlaid as magenta.
While the 80 mm lens is not designed for imaging distant subjects, the system captures avian-view imagery well and shows the “avian white” (reflective from the UV through the visible portions of the spectrum) patches of their feathers.
It also illustrates that the sky as predominantly UV-colored (i.e., appearing magenta), due to shorter wavelengths being subjected to increased Rayleigh scattering. Thus, while the sky may appear blue to our eyes, it would appear UV-blue to many other organisms.
Watch the video here…
Iridescent peacock feather through the eyes of 4 different animals.
The camera system can measure angle-dependent structural colors such as iridescence. This is illustrated here through a video of a highly iridescent peacock (Pavo cristatus) feather.
The colors in this video represent (A) peafowl Pavo cristatus false color, where blue, green, and red quantum catches are depicted as blue, green, and red, respectively, and the UV is overlaid as magenta.
Interestingly, the iridescence is more notable to the peafowl than to (B) humans (standard colors), (C) honeybees, or (D) dogs.
Watch the full video here…
A caterpillar’s anti-predator display in Apis vision.
This video shows a black swallowtail Papilio polyxenes caterpillar displaying its osmeteria. The scientists illustrate this video in honeybee false colors such that UV, blue, and green quantum catches are shown as blue, green, and red, respectively.
The (human) yellow osmeteria as well as the yellow spots along the caterpillar’s back both reflect strongly in the UV and appear magenta when the colors are shifted into honeybee false colors (as the strong responses on the honeybee’s UV-sensitive and green-sensitive photoreceptors are depicted as blue and red, respectively).
Many predators of caterpillars perceive UV, and accordingly, this coloration might be an effective aposematic signal.
Watch the full video here…
More about animals, cameras and color vision
As discussed above, the way animals perceive color is a fascinating journey into a world beyond human vision. Unlike humans, many animals see colors in spectrums we can barely imagine.
Humans typically perceive three primary colors: red, green, and blue. But this is just a fraction of the color spectrum in the animal kingdom.
For instance, bees and birds can see ultraviolet light, which is invisible to us. This ability plays a crucial role in their survival, aiding in finding food and navigating their environment.
Beyond human perception
Take the mantis shrimp, an ocean dweller with one of the most complex vision systems known.
It can perceive polarized light and has twelve to sixteen types of photoreceptor cells for color (humans have three).
This extraordinary vision helps them detect prey, predators, and mates in the intricate underwater world.
Color vision in animals is not just about seeing a range of colors; it’s about survival. For example, some snakes use infrared vision to hunt warm-blooded prey in the dark.
On the other hand, reindeer use ultraviolet vision to spot predators in the snowy, reflective landscape, a skill crucial for their survival in harsh climates.
Humans gaining insights
Evolution plays a significant role in this diversity of color vision. Animals have developed their unique color vision abilities based on their environmental needs and survival challenges.
This evolutionary process has resulted in a rich tapestry of visual capabilities across the animal kingdom.
Today, with advancements in technology, humans are beginning to understand and even visualize how animals see the world.
This understanding not only deepens our appreciation of nature’s complexity but also opens new avenues in ecology, behavior studies, and even technology design inspired by nature’s ingenuity.
In summary, the world of animal color vision is a vibrant and complex one, offering a kaleidoscope of perspectives far beyond human capabilities.
As we continue to explore and understand these perspectives, we gain a deeper appreciation of the natural world and the diverse creatures that inhabit it.
The full study was published in the journal PLoS Biology.
For videos that demonstrate how the camera works in nature, click here…
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