Low retinal noise in animals with low body temperature allows high visual sensitivity


The weakest pulse of light a human can detect sends about 100 photons through the pupil and produces 10–20 rhodopsin isomerizations in a small retinal area1,2. It has been postulated3 that we cannot see single photons because of a retinal noise arising from randomly occurring thermal isomerizations. Direct recordings have since demonstrated the existence of electrical 'dark' rod events indistinguishable from photoisomerization signals4–6. Their mean rate of occurrence is roughly consistent with the 'dark light' in psychophysical threshold experiments, and their thermal parameters justify an identification with thermal isomerizations5. In the retina of amphibians, a small proportion of sensitive ganglion cells have a performance-limiting noise that is low enough to be well accounted for by these events7–10. Here we study the performance of dark-adapted toads and frogs and show that the performance limit of visually guided behaviour is also set by thermal isomerizations. As visual sensitivity limited by thermal events should rise when the temperature falls, poikilothermous vertebrates living at low temperatures should then reach light sensitivities unattainable by mammals and birds with optical factors equal. Comparison of different species at different temperatures shows a correlation between absolute threshold intensities and estimated thermal isomerization rates in the retina.

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Aho, A., Donner, K., Hydén, C. et al. Low retinal noise in animals with low body temperature allows high visual sensitivity. Nature 334, 348–350 (1988). https://doi.org/10.1038/334348a0

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