Article image

New camera snaps photos that mimic animal vision and the colors they see

A new camera system technology is set to transform how ecologists and filmmakers understand and visualize the color perceptions of various animals in their natural habitats.

The research was led by Vera Vasas of the University of Sussex, UK, and colleagues from the Hanley Color Lab at George Mason University, US.

How animals perceive color

Animals perceive color through photoreceptor cells in their eyes, with significant variations depending on the species and their specific environmental needs and evolutionary history.

Unlike humans, who have trichromatic vision due to three types of cone cells sensitive to red, green, and blue light, animals can have a range of cone cells that allows some to perceive colors beyond the human visible spectrum.

Birds, for example, often boast superior color vision to humans, possessing tetrachromatic vision that includes the ability to see ultraviolet light, which is crucial for behaviors such as selecting mates and finding food.

Many insects, like bees, are also able to see ultraviolet light, helping them detect patterns on flowers that are invisible to humans.

Species like birds and insects commonly possess the ability to perceive ultraviolet light, enabling them to engage in various activities that remain invisible to humans.

On the other hand, mammals such as dogs and cats have dichromatic vision, making them unable to distinguish between red and green, similar to humans with red-green color blindness.

This reduced color perception affects their ability to see the full spectrum of colors that humans can.

While false color imaging offered a glimpse into this world, limitations such as time-intensive processes, specific lighting requirements, and an inability to capture movement hampered it.

Addressing these challenges, the research team has developed a cutting-edge camera and software system capable of recording and processing videos under natural lighting conditions, helping us see colors just as animals do.

Camera sees colors as animals do

As seen in this image, the system records in four color channels: blue, green, red, and UV. It then converts this data into “perceptual units” — essentially translating it into a format that replicates animal vision based on known photoreceptor data.

Impressively, when compared to traditional spectrophotometry methods, this new system boasts over 92% accuracy in predicting perceived colors that animals see.

This innovation opens unprecedented avenues for scientific research. It equips scientists with a tool to explore the dynamic, colorful world as seen by various species.

Additionally, filmmakers can now create more accurate and engaging representations of animal vision in their works.

Its construction from readily available commercial cameras, encased in a modular, 3D-printed housing, further enhances the practicality of this system.

Moreover, the accompanying software is open-source, inviting further development and adaptation within the research community.

For example, in this image, the camera captures a mockingbird in the green forest, but this beautiful nature scene is shown as it would look through avian eyes.

Bridging the gap between humans and animals

Senior author Daniel Hanley eloquently sums up the project’s significance.

“We’ve long been fascinated by how animals see the world. Modern techniques in sensory ecology have let us infer static scenes from an animal’s perspective. However, understanding their perception of moving objects — crucial for activities like locating food or selecting a mate — remained elusive,” Hanley explained.

“Our development introduces tools for ecologists and filmmakers to accurately capture and display animal-perceived colors in motion, marking a significant advancement in our study of animal behavior and perception,” he concluded.

In summary, this pioneering camera system signifies a technological breakthrough while marking a new chapter in our understanding of the animal kingdom, bringing us closer to experiencing animal vision by seeing the world through their eyes.

Videos demonstrating the animal vision camera system

Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) in avian vision

In this video, 2 northern mockingbirds are seen interacting in a tree, in avian false colors.

Specifically, the video displays blue, green, and red quantum catches as blue, green, and red, respectively, and overlays UV quantum catches as magenta.

While the 80 mm lens is not designed for imaging distant subjects, the system captures avian-view imagery well and shows the “avian white” (reflective from the UV through the visible portions of the spectrum) patches of their feathers.

It also shows the sky appearing predominantly UV-colored (i.e., magenta) because shorter wavelengths undergo increased Rayleigh scattering.

Thus, while the sky may appear blue to our eyes, it would appear UV-blue to many other organisms.

Watch the video here…

Iridescent peacock feather through the eyes of 4 different animals.

The camera system can measure angle-dependent structural colors such as iridescence. A video of a highly iridescent peacock (Pavo cristatus) feather illustrates this here.

This video represents the colors as follows: (A) peafowl Pavo cristatus false color, depicting blue, green, and red quantum catches as blue, green, and red, respectively, and overlaying the UV as magenta.

Interestingly, the iridescence is more notable to the peafowl than to (B) humans (standard colors), (C) honeybees, or (D) dogs.

Watch the full video here…

A caterpillar’s anti-predator display in Apis vision.

This video shows a black swallowtail Papilio polyxenes caterpillar displaying its osmeteria. The scientists illustrate this video in honeybee false colors. UV, blue, and green quantum catches are shown as blue, green, and red, respectively.

The (human) yellow osmeteria as well as the yellow spots along the caterpillar’s back both reflect strongly in the UV and appear magenta when the colors are shifted into honeybee false colors (as the strong responses on the honeybee’s UV-sensitive and green-sensitive photoreceptors are depicted as blue and red, respectively).

Many predators of caterpillars perceive UV, and accordingly, this coloration might be an effective aposematic signal.

Watch the full video here…

More about animals, cameras and color vision

As discussed above, the way animals perceive color is a fascinating journey into a world beyond human vision. Unlike humans, many animals see colors in spectrums we can barely imagine.

Humans typically perceive three primary colors: red, green, and blue. But this is just a fraction of the color spectrum in the animal kingdom.

For instance, bees and birds can see ultraviolet light, which is invisible to us. This ability plays a crucial role in their survival, aiding in finding food and navigating their environment.

Beyond human perception

Take the mantis shrimp, an ocean dweller with one of the most complex vision systems known.

It can perceive polarized light and has twelve to sixteen types of photoreceptor cells for color (humans have three).

This extraordinary vision helps them detect prey, predators, and mates in the intricate underwater world.

Color vision in animals is not just about seeing a range of colors, it’s about their survival. For example, some snakes use infrared vision to hunt warm-blooded prey in the dark.

On the other hand, reindeer use ultraviolet vision to spot predators in the snowy, reflective landscape. This is a skill crucial for their survival in harsh climates.

Humans gaining insights

Evolution plays a significant role in this diversity of color vision. Animals have developed their unique color vision abilities based on their environmental needs and survival challenges.

This evolutionary process has resulted in a rich tapestry of visual capabilities across the animal kingdom.

Today, with advancements in technology, humans are beginning to understand and even visualize how animals see the world.

This understanding not only deepens our appreciation of nature’s complexity but also opens new avenues in ecology, behavior studies, and even technology design inspired by nature’s ingenuity.

In summary, the world of animal color vision is a vibrant and complex one, offering a kaleidoscope of perspectives far beyond human capabilities.

As we continue to explore and understand these perspectives, we gain a deeper appreciation of the natural world and the diverse creatures that inhabit it.

The full study was published in the journal PLoS Biology.

For videos that demonstrate how the camera works in nature, click here…


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day