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Sequencing DNA from avian visual pigments reveals which birds are sensitive to UV light.

What colors can you see in these feathers?  The way humans and other animals perceive color depends on how many types of visual receptors they have, and how these are "tuned" to various wavelengths of light (colors). Humans have fewer types of color receptors (three) than birds (four), and thus much more limited color vision. Anders Ödeen and Olle Håsted at Uppsala University in Sweden have discovered that some birds (e.g., gulls) have color receptor proteins (opsins) that allow them to see ultraviolet (UV) light particularly well, whereas others (e.g., hawks) have opsins that are not as sensitive to UV light. Their studies have contributed to a body of research indicating that UV sensitivity has evolved only a few times in birds, and is found mainly in parrots, most perching birds, and some shorebirds. Can you imagine how a bird's UV light perception might affect its social interactions with potential mates or predators? Its ability to find food?

GRC contribution

or this project, the Burke GRC loaned tissues from 21 bird species from around the world. Ödeen and Håsted sequenced opsin DNA to help determine whether these species were UV sensitive.

More about this research


Ödeen, A., and O. Håstad. 2010. Pollinating birds differ in spectral sensitivity. Journal of Comparative Physiology A: Neuroethology, Sensory, Neural, and Behavioral Physiology, 196:91-96.

Ödeen, A., N. Hart, and O. Håstad. 2009. Assessing the use of genomic DNA as a predictor of the maximum absorbance wavelength of avian SWS1 opsin visual pigments. Journal of Comparative Physiology A: Neuroethology, Sensory, Neural, and Behavioral Physiology, 195:167-173.

Ödeen, A., O. Håstad, and P. Alström. 2009. Evolution of ultraviolet vision in shorebirds (Charadriiformes). Biology Letters (published online).

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Wing of Tucuman Parrot
Wing of Tucuman Parrot (Amazona tucumana) from Burke Museum spread wing collection, UWBM# 77423. Parrots are one of the groups of birds with a visual system sensitive to UV light.
Photo by Sharon Birks