Polarization vision and its role in biological signaling

Thomas W. Cronin, Nadav Shashar, Roy L. Caldwell, Justin Marshall, Alexander G. Cheroske, Tsyr Huei Chiou

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

195 Scopus citations


Visual pigments, the molecules in photoreceptors that initiate the process of vision, are inherently dichroic, differentially absorbing light according to its axis of polarization. Many animals have taken advantage of this property to build receptor systems capable of analyzing the polarization of incoming light, as polarized light is abundant in natural scenes (commonly being produced by scattering or reflection). Such polarization sensitivity has long been associated with behavioral tasks like orientation or navigation. However, only recently have we become aware that it can be incorporated into a high-level visual perception akin to color vision, permitting segmentation of a viewed scene into regions that differ in their polarization. By analogy to color vision, we call this capacity polarization vision. It is apparently used for tasks like those that color vision specializes in: contrast enhancement, camouflage breaking, object recognition, and signal detection and discrimination. While color is very useful in terrestrial or shallow-water environments, it is an unreliable cue deeper in water due to the spectral modification of light as it travels through water of various depths or of varying optical quality. Here, polarization vision has special utility and consequently has evolved in numerous marine species, as well as at least one terrestrial animal. In this review, we consider recent findings concerning polarization vision and its significance in biological signaling.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)549-558
Number of pages10
JournalIntegrative and Comparative Biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2003
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Plant Science


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