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Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2009 Oct 12;364(1531):2941-55. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2009.0044.

Evolution and spectral tuning of visual pigments in birds and mammals.

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UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, London EC1V 9EL, UK.


Variation in the types and spectral characteristics of visual pigments is a common mechanism for the adaptation of the vertebrate visual system to prevailing light conditions. The extent of this diversity in mammals and birds is discussed in detail in this review, alongside an in-depth consideration of the molecular changes involved. In mammals, a nocturnal stage in early evolution is thought to underlie the reduction in the number of classes of cone visual pigment genes from four to only two, with the secondary loss of one of these genes in many monochromatic nocturnal and marine species. The trichromacy seen in many primates arises from either a polymorphism or duplication of one of these genes. In contrast, birds have retained the four ancestral cone visual pigment genes, with a generally conserved expression in either single or double cone classes. The loss of sensitivity to ultraviolet (UV) irradiation is a feature of both mammalian and avian visual evolution, with UV sensitivity retained among mammals by only a subset of rodents and marsupials. Where it is found in birds, it is not ancestral but newly acquired.

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