How do we see in color?

show/hide words to know

Infrared: invisible light rays (for humans) that are beyond the red end of the visible spectrum... more

Pastel color: weak or washed out color... more

Retina: getting its name from the Latin meaning "net", the retina is located at the back of the eye and is where light is detected... more

Thalamus: is the part of the brain that works like a switching station. This part of the brain takes information coming from the body and sends it on to the cerebral cortex... more

Ultraviolet: (1) light waves at wavelengths less than those visible to humans. Also called UV light. (2) invisible light rays just below the violet end of the spectrum... more

Visual cortex: the part of the brain that processes what you see... more

How Do You Know If an Animal Can See Color?

Brain - Optic Nerve - Eyes Path

Eyes are used to capture light and the optic nerves then send signals to the brain where the information is processed into an image. Click to enlarge and to read additional details.

This question can be answered pretty easily. If an animal eye has cones they will be able to see some color. What is difficult to know is which colors an animal can see and how strong or weak the color will appear to the animal.

Scientists can study an animal eye and find out if it contains cones and what colors of light the cones can detect. It is also possible to count the number of cones and their location in the retina to understand how strong or weak a color might appear to an animal.

But, what color does the animal see? Vision, like all of our senses, is processed in the brain. Without being able to get into the head of an animal, it is only possible to know what colors can be detected and not how they "look" to the animal.

This is also true for a more familiar animal: the human. Two people may say they see a painted wall as a particular color, but do they see it the same way? The answer is not known at this point.

Animal eyes: jumping spider, rattlesnake, owl, cat

We can study animal eyes but we may never be able to know exactly what different animals see. Images left to right: Jumping spider by Opoterser. Rattlesnake by Karla Moeller. Owl by Woodwalker and Poxnar. Cat by Guylaine Brunet.

Do Humans Have Better Color Vision Than Animals?

It is true that we see more colors than some animals. Your pet dog and cat sees fewer and weaker colors. Their view of the world is made of pastel colors. However, some animals see colors we cannot. Spiders and many insects can see a type of light called ultraviolet that most humans cannot see. Other animals, like snakes, are able to see infrared light. You can use the chart below to explore what colors certain animals see and how they compare to human color vision.

 COMMON ANIMALS AND THE COLORS THEY CAN SEE

 
ANIMAL THE COLORS THEY SEE RELATIVE TO HUMANS
SPIDERS (jumping spiders) ULTRAVIOLET AND GREEN Different
INSECTS (bees) ULTRAVIOLET, BLUE, YELLOW Different
CRUSTACEANS (crayfish) BLUE AND RED Less
CEPHALOPODS (octopi and squids) BLUE ONLY Less
FISH MOST SEE JUST TWO COLORS Less
AMPHIBIANS (frogs) MOST SEE SOME COLOR Less
REPTILES (snakes*) SOME COLOR AND INFRARED Different
BIRDS FIVE TO SEVEN COLORS More
MAMMALS (cats) TWO COLORS BUT WEAKLY Less
MAMMALS (dogs) TWO COLORS BUT WEAKLY Less
MAMMALS (rabbit) BLUE AND GREEN Less
MAMMALS (rats) ULTRAVIOLET, BLUE, GREEN Different
MAMMALS (squirrels) BLUES AND YELLOWS Less
MAMMALS (primates-apes and chimps) SAME AS HUMANS Same
MAMMALS (African monkeys) SAME AS HUMANS Same
MAMMALS (South American monkeys) CAN'T SEE RED WELL Less
* pit vipers, some boas and some pythons    

How Do Some Animals See Colors Differently Than Humans?

Below are two examples of how humans see the world compared to how some other animals are likely to see it. One is a butterfly that can see in the ultraviolet wavelength and the other is a rattle snake that can see in the infrared wavelength.

How humans see a butterfly

Humans see the world differently than most other animals. We have three types of cones that detect different colors in what are called the visible light waves. Here we see how a person with normal color vision sees a butterfly.

Click here to see how butterflies see the world

How butterflies see each other.

Butterflies can see light that humans cannot see. They see in the ultraviolet wavelength. The vision of butterflies is also not as good as humans. So they do not see things as sharp and detailed.

Many people also think that insects see in kaleidoscope vision, with hundreds of images of the same thing. But that isn't true. Learn more with our story on bug vision.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What a human sees

Humans see light that enters directly into the eye, or is reflected off a surface of an object and then enters the eye. We see the man on the right with his left arm hidden in a black bag. Some animals can see in the infrared wavelengths. A lot of the heat released by objects in the natural environment is infrared. Essentially this means some animals can see heat in a way that humans cannot.

Click here to see how rattlesnakes see the world

What a snake sees - ultra violet

Because rattlesnakes can see in the infrared wavelength, they can see heat. In the picture of the man, his right arm is visible through the bag because it emits heat. Some pythons and boas can also sense heat in this way. On the snake's head, the red arrow points to the pit organs the rattlesnake uses for thermal sensing. Because these snakes have both eyes and pit organs, it is thought that they see a combined image of visual and heat information. 

The black arrow in the snake image points to the nostril. Though snakes have a great sense of smell, they don't really use their nostrils to smell. Instead, they smell by picking up chemicals with a flick of the tongue, and transferring those chemicals to a sensory organ at the roof of the mouth.

 

 

 

 

 

Images:

Eye, optic nerve, brain illustration from Beginning Psychology (v. 1.0) via Creative Commons (by-nc-sa 3.0). Labels modified for this page.

Additional images via Wikimedia Commons

References:

Gerald H. Jacobs*, John A. Fenwick and Gary A. Williams. (2001, April 19) Cone-based vision of rats for ultraviolet and visible lights. The Journal of Experimental Biology. Retrieved March 14, 2015 from http://jeb.biologists.org/content/204/14/2439.full.

Richard C. Goris. (2011, March) Infrared organs of snakes: An integral part of vision. Journal of Herpetology. Retrieved March 17. 2015 from http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1670/10-238.1.

 

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Bibliographic details:

  • Article: Colors Animals See
  • Author(s): Dr. Biology
  • Publisher: Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist
  • Site name: ASU - Ask A Biologist
  • Date published: December 17, 2009
  • Date accessed: September 22, 2018
  • Link: https://askabiologist.asu.edu/colors-animals-see

APA Style

Dr. Biology. (2009, December 17). Colors Animals See. ASU - Ask A Biologist. Retrieved September 22, 2018 from https://askabiologist.asu.edu/colors-animals-see

American Psychological Association. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/10/

Chicago Manual of Style

Dr. Biology. "Colors Animals See". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 17 December, 2009. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/colors-animals-see

MLA 2017 Style

Dr. Biology. "Colors Animals See". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 17 Dec 2009. ASU - Ask A Biologist, Web. 22 Sep 2018. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/colors-animals-see

Modern Language Association, 7th Ed. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/08/
Eye morph human and reptile

When comparing the vision of humans and other animals, some animals can see more colors and others see less.

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