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Brain Behav Evol. 2010;75(3):195-203. doi: 10.1159/000314278. Epub 2010 Aug 20.

The nocturnal bottleneck and the evolution of mammalian vision.

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Department of Anatomy, Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine, Midwestern University, Glendale, AZ 85308, USA.


Evidence from the early paleontological record of mammalian evolution has often been interpreted as supporting the idea that mammals were nocturnal for most of their early history. Multiple features of extant mammal sensory systems, such as evolutionary modifications to the light-regulated circadian system, photoreceptor complement, and retinal morphology, support this nocturnal hypothesis for mammalian evolution. Here, we synthesize data on eye shape and orbit orientation in mammals as these data compare to other amniotes. Most mammals differ from other amniotes in retaining an eye design optimized for high visual sensitivity, with the requisite reduction in acuity, which is typically restricted to scotopically (i.e. low light) adapted amniotes. Mammals also possess the more convergent (similarly facing) orbits and, on average, the largest binocular visual fields among amniotes. Based on our analyses, we propose that extant mammals retain a scotopic eye design as well as expanded binocular zones as a result of their nocturnal origin. Only anthropoid primates notably differ from general mammalian patterns, and possibly have evolved an eye shape more typical of the ancestral amniote condition.

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