Colour vision

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Sensory Neurobiology Group

Formerly Vision Touch and Hearing Research Centre

Queensland Brain Institute

Professor Justin Marshall

Our principle aim is to understand how other animals perceive their environment. As arrogant humans we tend to assume we are the pinnacle of evolution, however, certainly in sensory terms this is far from true. By taking an approach to sensory systems that is based around ecology but also includes physiology, anatomy, behaviour and neural integration, we hope to decode signals and their intention in the animal kingdom.

One of the animal groups we work on is the stomatopods (mantis shrimps), which are reef-dwelling crustaceans with the world's most complex colour vision system. These lowly crustaceans possess four times as many colour receptors as humans, four of which sample the ultraviolet (UV) region of the spectrum, light that we cannot see. The way in which UV and other colours are used by a variety of animal communication systems is a major component of our work.

At the other end of the scale, cephalopods such as cuttlefish, squid and octopus possess only a single photoreceptor type and are almost certainly colour blind. This makes their remarkable camouflage abilities even more astonishing but cephalopods along with several other marine creatures have specialised in polarisation vision. Understanding polarisation sensitivity in the marine environment is another aim of the lab.

As well as invertebrates, reef fish, elasmobranchs (the sharks and rays) and freshwater fish such as lungfish and cichlids form focal animal assemblages for study as do non marine animals such as parrots, birds of paradise and lizards. In all these groups our interest returns to trying to interpret the way they see their environment.

The environmentally extreme habitat of the deep oceans also catches the attention of some of our work and here sensory systems other than vision, vision and bioluminescence are of interest.

Finally, through studying the colour of animal habitat, it has become apparent that humans are changing the colour of the world. Two projects, CoralWatch and Prawns in Space attempt to safeguard the beauty of our planet for the future. In one case we seek to change the world and the way we live, in the other to change the way we view the world and both are based on 'asking' animals how they would do it. This field of study has become known as biomimetics and acknowledges the power of evolution to guide design principles and ideas.


Some of our key questions are:

Why are reef fish and parrots so brightly coloured?

How can these groups afford to apparently be so obvious while others invest in camouflage?

Are some animals, which appear obvious to our eyes, well camouflaged for the eyes of other animals?

Why are some fish striped horizontally and others striped vertically?

What happens to coral after it bleaches?

What are the functions of polarisation vision?

What are double cones for?

What animals live in the deep sea off Australia?


Potential postgraduate research
1. Colour vision: what do double cones do?
2. Visual behaviour in stomatopods
3. Electrophysiology and neuroarchitecture of the stomatopod eye
4. Colour changes in reef fish
5. The nature of colour signals

Last updated: April 2010 by Kylie Greig

Sensory Neurobiolgy Group
Queensland Brain Institute
University of Queensland
Brisbane Queensland 4072 Australia