Visual resolution and contrast sensitivity in two benthic sharks

paper8Published online on 24. October 2016

Visual resolution and contrast sensitivity in two benthic sharks

Laura A. Ryan, Nathan S. Hart, Shaun P. Collin, Jan M. Hemmi


Sharks have long been described as having ‘poor’ vision. They are cone monochromats and anatomical estimates suggest they have low spatial resolution. However, there are no direct behavioural measurements of spatial resolution or contrast sensitivity. This study estimates contrast sensitivity and spatial resolution of two species of benthic sharks, the Port Jackson shark, Heterodontus portusjacksoni, and the brown-banded bamboo shark, Chiloscyllium punctatum, by recording eye movements in response to optokinetic stimuli. Both species tracked moving low spatial frequency gratings with weak but consistent eye movements. Eye movements ceased at 0.38 cycles per degree, even for high contrasts, suggesting low spatial resolution. However, at lower spatial frequencies, eye movements were elicited by low contrast gratings, 1.3 % and 2.9% contrast in H. portusjacksoni and C. punctatum respectively. Contrast sensitivity was higher than in other vertebrates with a similar spatial resolving power, which may reflect an adaptation to the relatively low contrast encountered in aquatic environments. Optokinetic gain was consistently low and neither species stabilised the gratings on their retina. In order to check whether restraining the animals affected their optokinetic responses, we also analysed eye movements in free-swimming C. punctatum. We found no eye movements that could compensate for body rotations suggesting that vision may pass through phases of stabilisation and blur during swimming. As C. punctatum is a sedentary benthic species, gaze stabilization during swimming may not be essential. Our results suggest that vision in sharks is not ‘poor’ as previously suggested, but optimised for contrast detection rather than spatial resolution.

Journal of Experimental Biology 2016 : doi: 10.1242/jeb.132100



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