Journal of Comparative Physiology A

, Volume 172, Issue 3, pp 295–301 | Cite as

Colour vision in the passeriform bird, Leiothrix lutea: correlation of visual pigment absorbance and oil droplet transmission with spectral sensitivity

  • E. J. Maier
  • J. K. Bowmaker


The visual receptors in the retina of the passeriform bird Leiothrix lutea were examined microspectro-photometrically. The rods had a maximum absorbance close to 500 nm. Four spectrally different classes of single cone were identified with typical combinations of photopigments and oil droplets: a long-wave sensitive cone with a photopigment P568 and a droplet with a cut-off wavelength at 564 nm, a middle-wave sensitive cone with a P499 and a droplet with a cut-off at 506 nm, a short-wave sensitive cone with a P454 and a droplet with maximum absorbance below 410nm and an ultraviolet sensitive cone with a P355 and a transparent droplet. Double cones possessed a P568 in both the principal and accessory members. A pale droplet with variable absorbance (maximal at about 420 nm) was associated with the principal member whereas the ellipsoid region of the accessory member contained only low concentrations of carotenoid. The effective spectral sensitivities of the different cone classes were calculated from the characteristic combinations of oil droplets and photopigments and corrected for the absorbance of the ocular media. Comparison of these results with the behavioural spectral sensitivity function of Leiothrix lutea suggests that the increment threshold photopic spectral sensitivity of this avian species is mediated by the 4 single cone classes modified by neural opponent mechanisms.

Key words

Leiothrix lutea Photopigments Oil droplets Spectral sensitivity UV-cone 



long wave sensitive


middle wave sensitive


short wave sensitive (cones)


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Bowmaker JK (1977) The visual pigments, oil droplets and spectral sensitivity of the pigeon (Columba livia). Vision Res 17:1129–1138Google Scholar
  2. Bowmaker JK (1979) Visual pigments and oil droplets in the pigeon retina, as measured by microspectrophotometry, and their relationship to spectral sensitivity. In: Granda AM, Maxwell JH (eds) Neural mechanisms of behavior in the pigeon. Plenum, New York, pp 287–305Google Scholar
  3. Bowmaker JK (1980) Colour vision in birds and the role of oil droplets. Trends Neurosci 3:196–199Google Scholar
  4. Bowmaker JK (1991a) Evolution of visual pigments and photoreceptors. In: Gregory R, Cronly-Dillon JR (eds) Vision and visual dysfunction: Vol 2, Evolution of the eye and visual system. Macmillan, London, pp 63–81Google Scholar
  5. Bowmaker JK (1991b) Photoreceptors, photopigments and oil droplets. In: Gouras P (ed) Vision and visual dysfunction: Vol 6, The perception of colour. Macmillan, London, pp 108–127Google Scholar
  6. Bowmaker JK, Knowles A (1977) The visual pigments and oil droplets of the chicken, Gallus gallus. Vision Res 17:755–764Google Scholar
  7. Bowmaker JK, Martin GR (1978) Visual pigments and colour vision in a nocturnal bird, Strix aluco (tawny owl). Vision Res 18:1125–1130Google Scholar
  8. Bowmaker JK, Astell S, Hunt DM, Mollon JD (1991) Photosensitive and photostable pigments in the retinae of Old World monkeys. J Exp Biol 156:1–19Google Scholar
  9. Bowmaker JK, Kovach JK, Whitmore AV, Loew ER (1993) Visual pigments and oil droplets in genetically manipulated and carotenoid deprived quail: a microspectrophotometric study. Vision Res (In Press)Google Scholar
  10. Burkhardt D, Maier E (1989) The spectral sensitivity of a passerine bird is highest in the UV. Naturwissenschaften 76:82–83Google Scholar
  11. Chen DM, Goldsmith TH (1986) Four spectral classes of cones in the retinas of birds. J Comp Physiol A 159:473–479Google Scholar
  12. Chen DM, Collins JS, Goldsmith TH (1984) The ultraviolet receptors of bird retinas. Science 225:337–340Google Scholar
  13. Donner KO (1960) On the effect of the coloured oil droplets on the spectral sensitivity of the avian retina. In: Proc XIIth Int Ornithol Congr, Helsinki, pp 167–172Google Scholar
  14. Downing JEG, Djamgoz MBA, Bowmaker JK (1986) Photoreceptors of cyprinid fish: morphological and spectral characteristics. J Comp Physiol A 159:859–868Google Scholar
  15. Goldsmith TH (1980) Humming birds see near ultraviolet light. Science 207:786–788Google Scholar
  16. Goldsmith TH, Collins JS, Licht S (1984) The cone oil droplets of avian retinas. Vision Res 24:1661–1671Google Scholar
  17. Hárosi FI, Hashimoto Y (1983) Ultraviolet visual pigment in a vertebrate: a tetrachromatic cone system in the Dace. Science 222:1021–1023Google Scholar
  18. Huth HH, Burkhardt D (1972) Der spektrale Sehbereich eines Violettohr-Kolibris. Naturwissenschaften 59:650Google Scholar
  19. Ibbotson RE, Hunt DM, Bowmaker JK, Mollon JD (1992) Sequence divergence and copy number in the middle- and long-wave photopigment genes in Old World monkeys. Proc R Soc Lond B 247:145–154Google Scholar
  20. Jane SD, Bowmaker JK (1988) Tetrachromatic colour vision in the duck (Anas platyrhynchos): microspectrophotometry of visual pigments and oil droplets. J Comp Physiol A 165:225–235Google Scholar
  21. Knowles A, Dartnall HJA (1977) The photobiology of vision. In: Davson H (ed) The eye. Vol 2B. Academic Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  22. Liebman PA, Entine G (1964) Sensitive low-light-level microspectrophotometer detection of photosensitive pigments of retinal cones. J Opt Soc Am 54:1451–1459Google Scholar
  23. Lipetz LE (1984) A new method for determining peak absorbance of dense pigment samples and its application to the cone oil droplets of Emydoidea blandingii. Vision Res 24:597–604Google Scholar
  24. Maier EJ (1990) Verhaltensphysiologische Untersuchungen zum Farbensehen des Sonnenvogels (Leiothrix lutea, Timalidae, Passeriformes): Spektrale Empfindlichkeit und selektive chromatische Adaptation unter Berücksichtigung des UV-Bereiches. Doctoral Thesis, Univ RegensburgGoogle Scholar
  25. Maier EJ (1992) Spectral sensitivities including the ultraviolet of the passeriform bird Leiothrix lutea. J Comp Physiol A 170:709–714Google Scholar
  26. Maier E, Burkhardt D (1992) In search of common features of animals' color vision systems and the constraints of environment. Behav Brain Sci 15:44Google Scholar
  27. Mansfield RJW (1985) Primate photopigments and cone mechanisms. In: Levine JS, Fein A (eds) The visual system. Alan Liss, New York, pp 89–106Google Scholar
  28. Martin GR (1985) Eye. In: King AS, McLelland J (eds) Form and function in birds. Vol 3. Academic Press, London, pp 311–373Google Scholar
  29. Merbs SL, Nathans J (1992) Absorption spectra of human cone pigments. Nature 356:433–435Google Scholar
  30. Meyer DB (1977) The avian eye and its adaptations. In: Crescitelli F (ed) The visual system in vertebrates (Handbook of sensory physiology. Vol VII/5). Springer, Berlin Heidelberg New York, pp 549–611Google Scholar
  31. Mollon JD (1982) Colour vision. Annu Rev Psychol 33:41–85Google Scholar
  32. Mollon JD, Bowmaker JK, Jacobs GH (1984) Variations of colour vision in a New World primate can be explained by a polymorphism of retinal photopigments. Proc R Soc Lond B 222:373–399Google Scholar
  33. Neitz M, Neitz J, Jacobs GH (1991) Spectral tuning of pigments underlying red-green color vision. Science 252:971–974Google Scholar
  34. Partridge JC (1989) The visual ecology of avian cone oil droplets. J Comp Physiol A 165:415–426Google Scholar
  35. Press WH, Flannery BP, Teukolsky SA, Vetterling WT (1988) Numerical recipes in C. C CUP, Cambridge, pp 514–516Google Scholar
  36. Sillman AJ (1969) The visual pigments of several species of birds. Vision Res 9:1063–1077Google Scholar
  37. Sillman AJ, Bolnik DA, Hayes LW, Walter AE, Loew ER (1981) Microspectrophotometry of the photoreceptors of palaeognathus birds — the Emu and Tinamou. J Comp Physiol 144:271–276Google Scholar
  38. Whitmore AV, Bowmaker JK (1989) Seasonal variation in cone sensitivity and short-wave absorbing visual pigments in the rudd Scardinius erythrophthalmus. J Comp Physiol A 166:103–115Google Scholar
  39. Williams AJ, Hunt DM, Bowmaker JK, Mollon JD (1992) The polymorphic photopigments of the marmoset: spectral tuning and genetic basis. EMBO J 11:2039–2045Google Scholar
  40. Wright AA (1972) Psychometric and psychophysical hue discrimination functions for the pigeon. Vision Res 12:1447–1464Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  • E. J. Maier
    • 1
  • J. K. Bowmaker
    • 2
  1. 1.Universität Regensburg, Institut für ZoologieRegensburgGermany
  2. 2.Department of Visual Science, Institute of OphthalmologyUniversity of LondonLondonUK

Personalised recommendations