The most visible color to fish depends on the species and their habitat. Fish have different visual systems adapted to their environment. Freshwater fish that live in turbid rivers and lakes tend to see better in the red/orange end of the spectrum, while saltwater fish that live in clear ocean waters are more sensitive to blues and greens.
The Fish Visual System
Fish eyes are similar to human eyes in that they have corneas, lenses, iris openings, and retinas. However, there are some important differences between human and fish vision:
- Fish lenses are spherical while human lenses are oval shaped.
- The iris opening in fish is usually immobile while humans can contract and expand their pupils.
- Fish retinas contain both rod and cone photoreceptor cells like humans, but the distribution and proportion of each type varies across species.
- Most fish have more rods than cones allowing better vision in dim light.
- Cones contain visual pigments that are sensitive to different wavelengths of light. The types of cones present determine color perception.
These adaptations allow fish eyes to focus effectively underwater where lighting conditions can change drastically. The types of photoreceptor cones and their distribution across the retina determine what wavelengths of light fish can detect and which colors they see best.
Light Penetration in Water
The aquatic environment determines how color is perceived by fish due to differential light penetration in water. Longer wavelength light like reds and oranges can penetrate deeper, while shorter blues and violets are absorbed more rapidly. This restricts what parts of the color spectrum are available for fish vision at different depths.
In clear ocean water, blue light penetrates deepest allowing saltwater fish like tuna to detect blues and greens very well. In rivers and lakes, suspended particles scatter light limiting blue penetration. So freshwater fish like trout and carp are more sensitive to longer wavelength reds and oranges.
Cone Types in Fish Eyes
There are five main types of cones in fish retinas containing different visual pigments sensitive to particular wavelengths of light:
- Ultraviolet cones (UV) – Absorb UV wavelengths (300-400 nm)
- Violet/blue cones (VB) – Absorb short wavelengths (400-470 nm)
- Blue cones (B) – Absorb medium wavelengths (450-480 nm)
- Green cones (G) – Absorb medium to long wavelengths (470-570 nm)
- Red cones (R) – Absorb long wavelengths (570-700 nm)
The specific combination of cone types present determines a fish’s color vision capabilities. Having multiple cone types allows fish to distinguish color. Fish with only one cone type see in shades of gray.
|Fish Type||Cone Types Present||Peak Sensitivity|
|Trout (freshwater)||UB, VB, G||UV, violet, green|
|Goldfish (freshwater)||R, G||Red, green|
|Tuna (saltwater)||VB, B, G||Violet, blue, green|
|Seabass (saltwater)||UV, VB, B||UV, violet, blue|
As the table shows, the presence of UV cones in trout and seabass allows them to see into the near ultraviolet range that humans cannot. Tuna and seabass with three cone types have trichromatic color vision like humans. Whereas goldfish are dichromats seeing mainly in reds and greens.
Freshwater vs. Saltwater Vision
The underwater lighting environment drives differences in vision between freshwater and saltwater fish. Even closely related species living in different habitats show adaptations for maximizing visibility.
Freshwater lakes and rivers tend to have more algae growth, sediment, and dissolved organic compounds that scatter and absorb light. This attenuates shorter wavelength blues and greens so freshwater fish are adapted to longer reds and oranges that penetrate deeper.
In contrast, coral reef and pelagic ocean fish inhabit very clear blue waters where shorter wavelengths are most available. Saltwater species tend to completely lack red cones relying more on blues, greens, and ultraviolet detection.
- Brook trout have UV, violet, and green cones optimal for forests streams.
- Cutthroat trout additionally have red cones for seeing prey in muddy lakes.
- Sockeye salmon use UV and red cones when migrating from ocean to rivers.
- Chinook salmon evolved blue and red cones after adapting to open ocean.
- Cichlids in Lake Malawi have more red and green cones matching light in the murky lake.
- Close relatives in clear waters have more blue and ultraviolet cones.
These examples demonstrate how fish visual systems are fine-tuned to their specific light environments via evolutionary trade-offs in cone types.
Color Vision Advantages
Trichromatic and tetrachromatic color vision provides important benefits to fish survival:
- Food detection – See color contrasts on prey like insects, shrimp, or plankton.
- Predator avoidance – Distinguish predators from surroundings.
- Communication – Vibrant reds and UV patterns in skin and fins used for signaling.
- Navigation – Use color cues during migration and imprinting.
- Mate selection – Assess brightly colored candidates during spawning.
Fish that inhabit colorful coral reefs and rainforest streams appear to rely more heavily on color vision for survival. Loss of photoreceptor types can be detrimental if the environment changes.
How Can We Test Fish Color Vision?
Determining what fish can see and which colors stand out most is important for understanding their sensory world. Researchers use several approaches:
- Microspectrophotometry – Directly measures cone pigment absorbance.
- Gene sequencing – Identifies opsin genes responsible for cone photopigments.
- Behavioral assays – Train fish to respond to monochromatic lights.
- Electroretinography – Record responses from retinal neurons.
Behavioral conditioning provides the best clues to how fish perceive color in the wild. For example, fathead minnows trained to select blue targets over gray backgrounds demonstrate trichromatic vision tuned for short wavelengths despite lacking red cones.
Most Visible Wavelengths to Common Fish
|Fish||Habitat||Most Visible Wavelengths|
|Salmon||Rivers and ocean||UV, blue, red|
|Trout||Streams and lakes||UV, violet, green|
|Seabass||Coral reefs||UV, violet, blue|
|Tuna||Open ocean||Violet, blue, green|
|Carp||Ponds and rivers||Red, green|
This table summarizes the peak sensitivities determined for popular game and food fish. Those living in clear waters detect shorter wavelengths, while turbid water fish see best in the longer red/orange spectrum.
Fish have specialized visual systems adapted to maximize visibility in their specific aquatic light environments. Freshwater fish tend to be most sensitive to reds and oranges that penetrate turbid waters. Saltwater fish have vision tuned for blues and greens which travel farthest in clear oceans. Ultraviolet sensitivity provides an extra dimension in clean waters. Multiple cone types give fish trichromatic or tetrachromatic color vision for detecting food, predators, mates, and navigation cues. Understanding the sensory world of fish provides insight into their behavior and ecology.
In summary, absorbance spectra of cone photoreceptors, opsin gene expression, and behavioral measures demonstrate color perception in many fish species. Combinations of cones sensing UV, violet, blue, green and red wavelengths provide a range of chromatic vision. Fish inhabit diverse aquatic environments with different light regimes. So their vision is adapted to the specific wavelengths penetrating to their depth. Thus, the most visible color to fish depends greatly on habitat. Fish specialized for their niche perceive the world in unique ways compared to humans.