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Scotopic colour vision in nocturnal hawkmoths


Humans are colour-blind at night, and it has been assumed that this is true of all animals. But colour vision is as useful for discriminating objects1 at night as it is during the day. Here we show, through behavioural experiments, that the nocturnal hawkmoth Deilephila elpenor uses colour vision to discriminate coloured stimuli at intensities corresponding to dim starlight (0.0001 cd m-2). It can do this even if the illumination colour changes, thereby showing colour constancy—a property of true colour vision systems2. In identical conditions humans are completely colour-blind. Our calculations show that the possession of three photoreceptor classes reduces the absolute sensitivity of the eye, which indicates that colour vision has a high ecological relevance in nocturnal moths. In addition, the photoreceptors of a single ommatidium absorb too few photons for reliable discrimination, indicating that spatial and/or temporal summation must occur for colour vision to be possible. Taken together, our results show that colour vision occurs at nocturnal intensities in a biologically relevant context.

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Figure 1: Choice frequencies in tests after training to blue.
Figure 2: Choice frequencies in tests after training to yellow.
Figure 3: Colour constancy in D. elpenor.
Figure 4: Quantum catches of all D. elpenor photoreceptors in the two types of ommatidium (two ultraviolet and seven green receptors, two blue and seven green receptors) viewing six of the test colours (including the blue training colour) at the dimmest light intensity used (10-4 cd m-2).


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We thank D.-E. Nilsson for critically reading the manuscript; M. Pfaff for insights into hawkmoth behaviour; the human volunteers for participating in experiments; and everybody in the Vision Group for inspiration. We are grateful for the financial support of the Swedish Research Council.

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Correspondence to Almut Kelber.

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Kelber, A., Balkenius, A. & Warrant, E. Scotopic colour vision in nocturnal hawkmoths. Nature 419, 922–925 (2002).

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