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Avian Visual Pigments: Characteristics, Spectral Tuning, and Evolution

Nathan S. Hart and David M. Hunt
The American Naturalist
Vol. 169, No. S1, AVIAN COLORATION AND COLOR VISIONA Special Issue Edited by Andrew T. D. Bennett and Marc Théry (January 2007), pp. S7-S26
DOI: 10.1086/510141
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/510141
Page Count: 20
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Avian Visual Pigments: Characteristics, Spectral Tuning, and Evolution
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Abstract

Abstract: Birds are highly visual animals with complex visual systems. In this article, we discuss the spectral characteristics and genetic mechanisms of the spectral tuning of avian visual pigments. The avian retina contains a single type of rod, four spectrally distinct types of single cone, and a single type of double cone photoreceptor. Only the single cones are thought to be involved in color discrimination; double cones are thought to be involved in achromatic visual tasks, such as movement detection and pattern recognition. Visual pigment opsin protein genes in birds are orthologous to those in other vertebrates and have a common origin early in vertebrate evolution. Mechanisms of spectral tuning in the different classes of avian cone visual pigments show similarities in most instances to those in other vertebrates. The exception is the ultraviolet/violet (SWS1) class of pigments; phylogenetic evidence indicates that the ancestral vertebrate SWS1 pigment was ultraviolet sensitive (UVS), with different molecular mechanisms accounting for the generation of violet‐sensitive (VS) pigments in different vertebrate classes. In birds, however, UVS visual pigments have re‐evolved from an ancestral avian VS pigment by using a novel molecular mechanism not seen in other vertebrate classes. This has occurred independently in four of the 14 avian orders examined to date, although the adaptive significance of this is currently unknown.

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