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Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2011 Mar 12;366(1565):619-26. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2010.0201.

Patterns and properties of polarized light in air and water.

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  • 1Department of Biological Sciences, University of Maryland Baltimore County, Baltimore, MD 21250, USA.


Natural sources of light are at best weakly polarized, but polarization of light is common in natural scenes in the atmosphere, on the surface of the Earth, and underwater. We review the current state of knowledge concerning how polarization and polarization patterns are formed in nature, emphasizing linearly polarized light. Scattering of sunlight or moonlight in the sky often forms a strongly polarized, stable and predictable pattern used by many animals for orientation and navigation throughout the day, at twilight, and on moonlit nights. By contrast, polarization of light in water, while visible in most directions of view, is generally much weaker. In air, the surfaces of natural objects often reflect partially polarized light, but such reflections are rarer underwater, and multiple-path scattering degrades such polarization within metres. Because polarization in both air and water is produced by scattering, visibility through such media can be enhanced using straightforward polarization-based methods of image recovery, and some living visual systems may use similar methods to improve vision in haze or underwater. Although circularly polarized light is rare in nature, it is produced by the surfaces of some animals, where it may be used in specialized systems of communication.

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