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Curr Biol. 2002 Apr 16;12(8):657-60.

Trichromacy in Australian marsupials.

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Department of Zoology-WAIMR, University of Western Australia, WA 6009, Crawley, Australia.


Vertebrate color vision is best developed in fish, reptiles, and birds with four distinct cone receptor visual pigments. These pigments, providing sensitivity from ultraviolet to infrared light, are thought to have been present in ancestral vertebrates. When placental mammals adopted nocturnality, they lost two visual pigments, reducing them to dichromacy; primates subsequently reevolved trichromacy. Studies of mammalian color vision have largely overlooked marsupials despite the wide variety of species and ecological niches and, most importantly, their retention of reptilian retinal features such as oil droplets and double cones. Using microspectrophotometry (MSP), we have investigated the spectral sensitivity of the photoreceptors of two Australian marsupials, the crepuscular, nectivorous honey possum (Tarsipes rostratus) and the arhythmic, insectivorous fat-tailed dunnart (Sminthopsis crassicaudata); these species are representatives of the two major taxonomic divisions of marsupials, the diprotodonts and polyprotodonts, respectively. Here, we report the presence of three spectrally distinct cone photoreceptor types in both species. It is the first evidence for the basis of trichromatic color vision in mammals other than primates. We suggest that Australian marsupials have retained an ancestral visual pigment that has been lost from placental mammals.

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