When shown the gray screens, the chitons did not respond. But they clamped down when shown a black disk three centimeters or larger in diameter. That would be the equivalent of humans looking in the sky and seeing a disk the diameter of 20 moons, making human vision about a thousand times sharper than chiton vision, Johnsen said.
Because the chitons responded to the larger disks and not the gray slides, they seem to be seeing the disk and not simply responding to a change in light, said University of Sussex biologist Michael Land, an expert on animal vision who was not involved in the research. It's not yet clear if they respond only to the removal of light by the disk as opposed to added light.
Land also said it's not likely that the chitons' eyes were part of the evolutionary route to human eyes.
Chitons are an ancient, primitive species that first appeared on Earth more than 500 million years ago. But the oldest chitons with eyes only began to appear in the fossil record in the last 25 million years, making their eyes among the most recent to evolve in animals. Speiser said chitons probably evolved to have eyes with lenses so they could see their predators and defend themselves against being eaten.
Speiser and his colleagues also tested whether the chitons' eyes work in both air and water, since some species spend time in both. The experiments made a strong case for the chiton lens being able to focus light differently, depending on whether the animal is above or below water, Land said.
He added that chiton eyes are still an anomaly in the evolution of vision. The retinas are structurally similar to snail and slug retinas. But snail and slug retinas respond to the appearance of light, while chiton retinas may only respond to the removal of light, a difference that might be worth another look, Land said.
|Contact: Gail Gallessich|
University of California - Santa Barbara