Ultraviolet visual sensitivity in three avian lineages: Paleognaths, parrots, and passerines

Zachary Aidala, Leon Huynen, Patricia L.R. Brennan, Jacob Musser, Andrew Fidler, Nicola Chong, Gabriel E.Machovsky Capuska, Michael G. Anderson, Amanda Talaba, David Lambert, Mark E. Hauber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Ultraviolet (UV) light-transmitted signals play a major role in avian foraging and communication, subserving functional roles in feeding, mate choice, egg recognition, and nestling discrimination. Sequencing functionally relevant regions of the short wavelength sensitive type 1 (SWS1) opsin gene that is responsible for modulating the extent of SWS1 UV sensitivity in birds allows predictions to be made about the visual system's UV sensitivity in species where direct physiological or behavioral measures would be impractical or unethical. Here, we present SWS1 segment sequence data from representative species of three avian lineages for which visually based cues for foraging and communication have been investigated to varying extents. We also present a preliminary phylogenetic analysis and ancestral character state reconstructions of key spectral tuning sites along the SWS1 opsin based on our sequence data. The results suggest ubiquitous ultraviolet SWS1 sensitivity (UVS) in both paleognaths, including extinct moa (Emeidae), and parrots, including the nocturnal and flightless kakapo (Strigops habroptilus), and in most, but not all, songbird (oscine) lineages, and confirmed violet sensitivity (VS) in two suboscine families. Passerine hosts of avian brood parasites were included both UVS and VS taxa, but sensitivity did not co-vary with egg rejection behaviors. The results should stimulate future research into the functional parallels between the roles of visual signals and the genetic basis of visual sensitivity ins birds and other taxa.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)495-510
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Comparative Physiology A: Neuroethology, Sensory, Neural, and Behavioral Physiology
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • Avian communication
  • Perching birds
  • SWS1 opsin
  • Sensory ecology
  • Ultraviolet vision

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Physiology
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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