Biological Machines/Sensory Systems/Visual System/Sensory Organs

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Vision, or the ability to see depends on visual system sensory organs or eyes. There are many different constructions of eyes, ranging in complexity depending on the requirements of the organism. The different constructions have different capabilities, are sensitive to different wave-lengths and have differing degrees of acuity, also they require different processing to make sense of the input and different numbers to work optimally. The ability to detect and decipher EM has proved to be a valuable asset to most forms of life, leading to an increased chance of survival for organisms that utilise it. In environments without sufficient light, or complete lack of it, lifeforms have no added advantage of vision, which ultimately has resulted in atrophy of visual sensory organs with subsequent increased reliance on other senses (e.g. some cave dwelling animals, bats etc.). Interestingly enough, it appears that visual sensory organs are tuned to the optical window, which is defined as the EM wavelengths (between 300nm and 1100nm) that pass through the atmosphere reaching to the ground. This is shown in the figure below. You may notice that there exists other "windows", an IR window, which explains to some extent the thermal-"vision" of snakes, and a radiofrequency (RF) window, of which no known lifeforms are able to detect.

Atmospheric electromagnetic opacity.svg

Through time evolution has yielded many eye constructions, and some of them have evolved multiple times, yielding similarities for organisms that have similar niches. There is one underlying aspect that is essentially identical, regardless of species, or complexity of sensory organ type, the universal usage of light-sensitive proteins called opsins. Without focusing too much on the molecular basis though, the various constructions can be categorised into distinct groups:

  • Spot Eyes
  • Pit Eyes
  • Pinhole Eyes
  • Lens Eyes
  • Refractive Cornea Eyes
  • Reflector Eyes
  • Compound Eyes

The least complicated configuration of eyes enable organisms to simply sense the ambient light, enabling the organism to know whether there is light or not. It is normally simply a collection of photosensitive cells in a cluster in the same spot, thus sometimes referred to as spot eyes, eye spot or stemma. By either adding more angular structures or recessing the spot eyes, an organisms gains access to directional information as well, which is a vital requirement for image formation. These so called pit eyes are by far the most common types of visual sensory organs, and can be found in over 95% of all known species.

Pinhole eye

Taking this approach to the obvious extreme leads to the pit becoming a cavernous structure, which increases the sharpness of the image, alas at a loss in intensity. In other words, there is a trade-off between intensity or brightness and sharpness. An example of this can be found in the Nautilus, species belonging to the family Nautilidae, organisms considered to be living fossils. They are the only known species that has this type of eye, referred to as the pinhole eye, and it is completely analogous to the pinhole camera or the camera obscura. In addition, like more advanced cameras, Nautili are able to adjust the size of the aperture thereby increasing or decreasing the resolution of the eye at a respective decrease or increase in image brightness. Like the camera, the way to alleviate the intensity/resolution trade-off problem is to include a lens, a structure that focuses the light unto a central area, which most often has a higher density of photo-sensors. By adjusting the shape of the lens and moving it around, and controlling the size of the aperture or pupil, organisms can adapt to different conditions and focus on particular regions of interest in any visual scene. The last upgrade to the various eye constructions already mentioned is the inclusion of a refractive cornea. Eyes with this structure have delegated two thirds of the total optic power of the eye to the high refractive index liquid inside the cornea, enabling very high resolution vision. Most land animals, including humans have eyes of this particular construct. Additionally, many variations of lens structure, lens number, photosensor density, fovea shape, fovea number, pupil shape etc. exists, always, to increase the chances of survival for the organism in question. These variations lead to a varied outward appearance of eyes, even with a single eye construction category. Demonstrating this point, a collection of photographs of animals with the same eye category (refractive cornea eyes) is shown below.

Refractive Cornea Eyes
Hawk Eye
Sheep Eye
Cat Eye
Human Eye

An alternative to the lens approach called reflector eyes can be found in for example mollusks. Instead of the conventional way of focusing light to a single point in the back of the eye using a lens or a system of lenses, these organisms have mirror like structures inside the chamber of the eye that reflects the light into a central portion, much like a parabola dish. Although there are no known examples of organisms with reflector eyes capable of image formation, at least one species of fish, the spookfish (Dolichopteryx longipes) uses them in combination with "normal" lensed eyes.

Compound eye

The last group of eyes, found in insects and crustaceans, is called compound eyes. These eyes consist of a number of functional sub-units called ommatidia, each consisting of a facet, or front surface, a transparent crystalline cone and photo-sensitive cells for detection. In addition each of the ommatidia are separated by pigment cells, ensuring the incoming light is as parallel as possible. The combination of the outputs of each of these ommatidia form a mosaic image, with a resolution proportional to the number of ommatidia units. For example, if humans had compound eyes, the eyes would have covered our entire faces to retain the same resolution. As a note, there are many types of compound eyes, but delving to deep into this topic is beyond the scope of this text.

Not only the type of eyes vary, but also the number of eyes. As you are well aware of, humans usually have two eyes, spiders on the other hand have a varying number of eyes, with most species having 8. Normally the spiders also have varying sizes of the different pairs of eyes and the differing sizes have different functions. For example, in jumping spiders 2 larger front facing eyes, give the spider excellent visual acuity, which is used mainly to target prey. 6 smaller eyes have much poorer resolution, but helps the spider to avoid potential dangers. Two photographs of the eyes of a jumping spider and the eyes of a wolf spider are shown to demonstrate the variability in the eye topologies of arachnids.