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Can bats see red?

Bats are fascinating creatures that have adapted in amazing ways to navigate and hunt in the dark. One of the most common questions about bats is whether they can see color, especially the color red. In this article, we’ll explore what science has revealed about how bats see color and specifically address the question of whether bats can see the color red.

How Bat Vision Works

To understand whether bats can see red, we first need to know a little bit about how bat eyes work. Bats are not completely blind, but their vision is adapted for low light conditions. Here are a few key facts about bat vision:

  • Most bats have small eyes compared to their body size. Their eyes account for just 1% of their weight, compared to 2% in humans.
  • Bats have a high density of rods cells and few cone cells in their retinas. Rod cells provide excellent night vision but poor color detection. Cone cells enable color vision.
  • The structure of bat retinas suggests they evolved from day-flying, insect-eating bats with color vision to become nocturnal bats adapted for dim light.
  • Bat retinas contain two types of light-sensitive pigments compared to three pigments in most mammals. This limits their color perception.

In summary, bat eyes are specialized for night vision and motion detection, not color discernment. They do have some cones cells capable of perceiving color, but their color vision is limited.

Scientific Research on Bat Color Vision

Scientists have conducted various studies to directly test the color vision abilities of bats. Here is some of what they have learned:

Study Findings
Behavioral experiments with bright light sources Bats were able to discriminate blue from green light but not red from green
Recordings of retinal responses to light Bats had weak responses to red light compared to other colors
Genetic analysis of opsin genes Most bats lack the opsin gene for long-wavelength (red) color vision

In behavioral experiments, bats have shown the ability to distinguish blue from green light but not from red light. Recordings of their retinal cells also indicate bats have limited sensitivity to red light. At the genetic level, most bats lack the opsin gene that enables long-wavelength red color vision.

Limitations of Bat Color Vision

Researchers have identified several factors that limit bats’ ability to see red:

  • Few cone cells – As mentioned above, bat retinas have rod cells adapted for night vision but very few cone cells needed for color discernment.
  • No long wavelength opsin – Bats lack the LWS opsin gene that produces pigments sensitive to red light.
  • Only two cone types – Most bats have rods plus short wavelength (SWS) and middle wavelength (MWS) cones. Three cone types are needed for full color vision.
  • Cone cell distribution – The cone cells bats do have are concentrated in a central band rather than distributed across the retina, further limiting color perception.

With their nocturnal lifestyle, bats did not need strong color vision abilities, so these limitations evolved as a result of natural selection.

Can Vampire Bats See Red?

Vampire bats may be a special case when it comes to color vision. These bats feed exclusively on blood and use their senses, including vision, to find prey at night. Researchers discovered that the common vampire bat Desmodus rotundus has an intact LWS opsin gene and can likely distinguish red from green.

This ability may help vampire bats find blood vessels near the surface of skin. However, their color discrimination abilities are still limited by a low density of cone cells. So while the vampire bat may be an exception, even their red color vision is weak compared to diurnal, fruit-eating bats.

Implications for Bat Vision Research

The accumulated evidence clearly shows that most bat species cannot see red well, if at all. This has implications for anyone studying bat sensory biology and behavior:

  • Red light can be used as a control in bat vision experiments since they cannot detect it.
  • Red objects or markings will not be easily visible to bats at night (with the possible exception of vampires).
  • Bats likely use brightness, motion, contrast, and shape cues more than color to perceive objects.
  • Research should focus more on bat echolocation than color perception abilities.

In short, the question of whether bats can see red can definitively be answered "No" for most species. Only vampire bats show limited red sensitivity. Any behaviors or adaptations related to vision in bats are unlikely to involve the color red.

Can Bats Detect Red Fruit?

Given their poor ability to distinguish red, can bats detect ripe red fruit to feed on at night? The answer depends on the species.

Most insect-eating bats would not be looking for fruit. The frugivorous (fruit-eating) bats that do seek fruit often have limited red color vision. However, they likely use scent and memory of locations rather than sight to find fruiting trees.

Thefruit-eating bats that can detect red, such as the straw-coloured fruit bat, tend to be diurnal or crepuscular (active at twilight). This allows them to use vision along with scent and memory when seeking ripe, red fruit.

Nocturnal fruit-eating bats like the Jamaican fruit bat would not rely on red color cues. Instead, fruits adapted for bat dispersal often reflect ultrasonic bat calls to help echolocating bats find them.

Bat Species Red Color Vision? How They Find Fruit
Straw-colored fruit bat Yes Sight, scent & memory
Jamaican fruit bat No Scent, memory & echolocation
Brown long-eared bat No Does not eat fruit

In summary, the only bats likely to use red color as a fruit cue are diurnal/crepuscular species with adequate cone cell density and an intact LWS opsin gene. Nocturnal fruit-eating bats use other senses to find ripened fruits.

Do Bats Avoid Red Light?

Red lights are sometimes used to deter bats since it is believed they avoid or cannot see the red end of the visible spectrum. But does scientific evidence support this?

As discussed above, most bats do have limited ability to detect red light. However, they are unlikely to have an innate aversion to longer wavelength red light compared to shorter wavelengths.

Bats that venture out in red light conditions, such as vampire bats, provide evidence that red light itself does not deter bats if they have adapted to take advantage of such conditions.

Red lights may make it more difficult for bats to navigate or spot prey compared to full spectrum white light. But red light does not appear to be repellent or frightening to bats based on their vision. Red light likely provides less stimulation than other colors rather than deterring bats due to an innate aversion.


To summarize the key points:

  • Most bats lack the visual receptors and opsin genes needed for red color vision.
  • Behavioral and genetic evidence confirms bats cannot distinguish red well compared to other colors.
  • Only the vampire bat shows some limited ability to detect red due to an intact LWS opsin gene.
  • Fruit-eating bats use smell and memory rather than sight to find ripe, red fruits.
  • Red light does not inherently repel bats, but their limited vision makes it harder to spot prey.

So in conclusion, the answer to “can bats see red?” is predominantly no. Their vision is adapted to low light conditions at the cost of color perception. Red objects or light will be difficult for bats to detect, but red is unlikely to deter bats on its own. Vision research with bats needs to focus on other aspects of their visual abilities besides color.