Research article

BMC Evolutionary Biology

, 11:313

First online:

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

Evolution of ultraviolet vision in the largest avian radiation - the passerines

  • Anders ÖdeenAffiliated withDepartment of Animal Ecology, Uppsala University Email author 
  • , Olle HåstadAffiliated withDepartment of Evolutionary Organismal Biology, Uppsala UniversityDepartment of Anatomy, Physiology and Biochemistry, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
  • , Per AlströmAffiliated withSwedish Species Information Centre, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences



Interspecific variation in avian colour vision falls into two discrete classes: violet sensitive (VS) and ultraviolet sensitive (UVS). They are characterised by the spectral sensitivity of the most shortwave sensitive of the four single cones, the SWS1, which is seemingly under direct control of as little as one amino acid substitution in the cone opsin protein. Changes in spectral sensitivity of the SWS1 are ecologically important, as they affect the abilities of birds to accurately assess potential mates, find food and minimise visibility of social signals to predators. Still, available data have indicated that shifts between classes are rare, with only four to five independent acquisitions of UV sensitivity in avian evolution.


We have classified a large sample of passeriform species as VS or UVS from genomic DNA and mapped the evolution of this character on a passerine phylogeny inferred from published molecular sequence data. Sequencing a small gene fragment has allowed us to trace the trait changing from one stable state to another through the radiation of the passeriform birds. Their ancestor is hypothesised to be UVS. In the subsequent radiation, colour vision changed between UVS and VS at least eight times.


The phylogenetic distribution of SWS1 cone opsin types in Passeriformes reveals a much higher degree of complexity in avian colour vision evolution than what was previously indicated from the limited data available. Clades with variation in the colour vision system are nested among clades with a seemingly stable VS or UVS state, providing a rare opportunity to understand how an ecologically important trait under simple genetic control may co-evolve with, and be stabilised by, associated traits in a character complex.