Research Article

Evolutionary Biology

, Volume 40, Issue 4, pp 542-553

First online:

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

Expression and Evolution of Short Wavelength Sensitive Opsins in Colugos: A Nocturnal Lineage That Informs Debate on Primate Origins

  • Gillian L. MoritzAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences, Dartmouth College Email author 
  • , Norman T.-L. LimAffiliated withDepartment of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology, University of California
  • , Maureen NeitzAffiliated withDepartment of Ophthalmology, University of Washington
  • , Leo PeichlAffiliated withMax Planck Institute for Brain Research
  • , Nathaniel J. DominyAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences, Dartmouth CollegeDepartment of Anthropology, Dartmouth College Email author 


A nocturnal activity pattern is central to almost all hypotheses on the adaptive origins of primates. This enduring view has been challenged in recent years on the basis of variation in the opsin genes of nocturnal primates. A correspondence between the opsin genes and activity patterns of species in Euarchonta—the superordinal group that includes the orders Primates, Dermoptera (colugos), and Scandentia (treeshrews)—could prove instructive, yet the basic biology of the dermopteran visual system is practically unknown. Here we show that the eye of the Sunda colugo (Galeopterus variegatus) lacks a tapetum lucidum and has an avascular retina, and we report on the expression and spectral sensitivity of cone photopigments. We found that Sunda colugos have intact short wavelength sensitive (S-) and long wavelength sensitive (L-) opsin genes, and that both opsins are expressed in cone photoreceptors of the retina. The inferred peak spectral sensitivities are 451 and 562 nm, respectively. In line with adaptation to nocturnal vision, cone densities are low. Surprisingly, a majority of S-cones coexpress some L-opsin. We also show that the ratio of rates of nonsynonymous to synonymous substitutions of exon 1 of the S-opsin gene is indicative of purifying selection. Taken together, our results suggest that natural selection has favored a functional S-opsin in a nocturnal lineage for at least 45 million years. Accordingly, a nocturnal activity pattern remains the most likely ancestral character state of euprimates.


Retina Visual pigment Dermoptera Scandentia Primates