Regular Article

Cell and Tissue Research

, 338:391

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Specialized ommatidia of the polarization-sensitive dorsal rim area in the eye of monarch butterflies have non-functional reflecting tapeta

  • Thomas LabhartAffiliated withInstitute of Zoology, University of Zurich Email author 
  • , Franziska BaumannAffiliated withInstitute of Zoology, University of Zurich
  • , Gary D. BernardAffiliated withDepartment of Electrical Engineering, University of Washington


Many insects exploit sky light polarization for navigation or cruising-course control. The detection of polarized sky light is mediated by the ommatidia of a small specialized part of the compound eye: the dorsal rim area (DRA). We describe the morphology and fine structure of the DRA in monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). The DRA consists of approximately 100 ommatidia forming a narrow ribbon along the dorsal eye margin. Each ommatidium contains two types of photoreceptor with mutually orthogonal microvilli orientations occurring in a 2:6 ratio. Within each rhabdomere, the microvilli are well aligned. Rhabdom structure and orientation remain constant at all retinal levels, but the rhabdom profiles, as seen in tangential sections through the DRA, change their orientations in a fan-like fashion from the frontal to the caudal end of the DRA. Whereas these properties (two microvillar orientations per rhabdom, microvillar alignment along rhabdomeres, ommatidial fan array) are typical for insect DRAs in general, we also report and discuss here a novel feature. The ommatidia of monarch butterflies are equipped with reflecting tapeta, which are directly connected to the proximal ends of the rhabdoms. Although tapeta are also present in the DRA, they are separated from the rhabdoms by a space of approximately 55 μm effectively inactivating them. This reduces self-screening effects, keeping polarization sensitivity of all photoreceptors of the DRA ommatidia both high and approximately equal.


Polarization vision Compound eye Dorsal rim area Tapetum Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus (Insecta)