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How many Colours can sharks see?

Sharks have fascinated humans for centuries with their sleek, streamlined bodies, rows of razor-sharp teeth, and excellent sensory capabilities that make them such effective ocean predators. One aspect of shark biology that many find intriguing is sharks’ visual abilities – specifically, their ability to see color. In this article, we’ll explore what’s known about sharks’ capacity for color vision and how many colors they can detect.

Shark Eyes and Vision

To understand shark color vision, we first need to know a bit about the anatomy and physiology of their eyes. Sharks have excellent vision overall, with some species able to see up to 10 times better than humans in certain conditions. Their eyes are similar to human eyes in some ways – sharks have a cornea, pupil, lens, and retina – but also have some key differences.

One major difference is that sharks don’t have eyelids. Instead, their eyes are protected by a membrane called the nictitating membrane that extends up over the eye. Sharks also have a reflective layer of crystals behind their retina called the tapetum lucidum that allows them to see well in low light conditions.

Sharks possess rod photoreceptor cells, which detect brightness and motion, and cone photoreceptor cells, which are responsible for color vision. However, the distribution and abundance of rods versus cones can vary among shark species depending on their lifestyle and habitat.

Evidence for Shark Color Vision

So do sharks see color? Researchers have conducted a number of studies aimed at determining if and to what extent various shark species can detect color. These studies have looked at shark retinas, brains, behaviors and more for clues about their color vision capabilities. Here is some of the evidence that suggests sharks can see some colors:

  • The presence of cone cells – Sharks possess cone photoreceptor cells in their retinas, which are the cells required for seeing color. Species like tiger sharks and lemon sharks have both single and double cones.
  • Optic nerve studies – Analyses of optic nerves in certain sharks have revealed the presence of fibers that respond specifically to color stimuli. Hammerhead sharks, for example, have optic nerves with nearly equal numbers of fibers devoted to rod cells and cone cells.
  • Brain response – Mapping shark brain activity in response to colored light shows specific activation of color-sensitive visual processing regions.
  • Feeding behaviors – Some behavioral studies indicate sharks can learn to associate certain colors with food rewards.

However, the extent and specificity of shark color vision is still somewhat unclear. More research is needed to determine the number and types of cones in various species and how they process color information.

Color Vision Capabilities by Species

Not all sharks see color equally. There appear to be some differences in color vision capabilities between shark species depending on the ecology and habitat of each species. Here is what we know so far about some specific sharks:

Tiger Sharks

Tiger sharks have good color vision. Studies of their retinas reveal the presence of single cones likely sensitive to blue and double cones likely sensitive to green. This cone combination gives them trichromatic color vision similar to humans, who also possess blue, green and red cones.

Lemon Sharks

Lemon sharks also have both single and double cones in their retinas, again suggesting trichromatic vision. Research shows they can be trained to respond to colored light stimuli.

Hammerhead Sharks

With an eye placement that provides excellent binocular vision, hammerheads likely use color vision while hunting. Their optic nerve has a substantial number of color-sensitive fibers. However, the cones in their retinas may be primarily sensitive to blue light only.

Bull Sharks

Bull sharks have very few cones compared to rods, indicating they rely more on brightness/contrast than color. However, they do still possess some double cones that may allow them to detect some colors.

Great White Sharks

Great whites are thought to have limited color vision. They only appear to have a single cone type that likely detects blue or green light. This minimal cone presence seems adaptive for their lifestyle hunting in deep, dark ocean waters.

Nurse Sharks

Slow-moving nurse sharks that rest on the sea floor have retinas dominated by rod cells at the expense of cones. While they may have some basic color discrimination, their vision is geared more toward low light sensitivity.

Number of Colors Sharks Can See

Given their diversity of cone photoreceptors and color-sensitive brain regions, most sharks likely have at least some degree of color vision, though precise capabilities vary. But how many colors can they actually see? Here are some possibilities based on the research:

Color Vision Type Number of Colors Shark Examples
Monochromatic Shades of one color only Great white sharks
Dichromatic 2 colors Bull sharks, nurse sharks
Trichromatic 3 colors Tiger sharks, lemon sharks

So while the maximum number is still under investigation, most sharks likely see between one and three colors. Some researchers hypothesize certain shark species may be tetrachromats capable of seeing four colors, but more research is needed.


In summary, most sharks do have some degree of color vision thanks to the presence of cone cells in their retinas. However, color vision is not uniformly distributed among all species. Each species has evolved visual capabilities adapted to its particular habitat and lifestyle. Short answer – sharks can see a limited number of colors, anywhere from one to perhaps four or more, depending on the species. However, their vision prioritizes motion detection and low light performance over more complex color discrimination. Their color vision provides useful additional environmental information, but is secondary to the contrast and brightness cues that allow them to hunt so effectively.