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Why Aye-Ayes See Blue


  • Contract grant sponsor: David and Lucile Packard Foundation; contract grant sponsor: 2007-31754. The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Correspondence to: Amanda D. Melin, Department of Anthropology, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH 03755.


The capacity for cone-mediated color vision varies among nocturnal primates. Some species are colorblind, having lost the functionality of their short-wavelength-sensitive-1 (SWS1) opsin pigment gene. In other species, such as the aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis), the SWS1 gene remains intact. Recent studies focused on aye-ayes indicate that this gene has been maintained by natural selection and that the pigment has a peak sensitivity (λmax) of 406 nm, which is ∼20 nm closer to the ultraviolet region of the spectrum than in most primates. The functional significance behind the retention and unusual λmax of this opsin pigment is unknown, and it is perplexing given that all mammals are presumed to be colorblind in the dark. Here we comment on this puzzle and discuss recent findings on the color vision intensity thresholds of terrestrial vertebrates with comparable optics to aye-ayes. We draw attention to the twilight activities of aye-ayes and report that twilight is enriched in short-wavelength (bluish) light. We also show that the intensity of twilight and full moonlight is probably sufficient to support cone-mediated color vision. We speculate that the intact SWS1 opsin pigment gene of aye-ayes is a crepuscular adaptation and we report on the blueness of potential visual targets, such as scent marks and the brilliant blue arils of Ravenala madagascariensis.

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