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Do Animals See in Color?

By R. Kayne
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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While the question is overbroad considering the millions of animal species including insects, the general answer is that scientists have reason to believe many if not most animals see in color to some extent. For simplicity, a very general rule is sometimes offered: most diurnal animals do see in color, while most nocturna animals don’t, but even here there are exceptions.

Animals and insects cover an exhaustive field of biological diversity. The majority of spiders have eight eyes and poor vision, while flies have hundreds of tiny lenses and near-360-degree vision. Eagles can spot a mouse from over one mile high (1.6 km), while a sloth has trouble seeing any animal that isn’t moving. Considering this vast diversity, whether or not animals see in color is a question that must be taken species by species.

In humans, rods and cones in the eye’s retina detect light and color, respectively. Rods allow us to see shapes in dim light and make our way down the hall in the middle of the night. Cones, which detect color, require more light to activate. For this reason you might notice that you don’t see color in the dark; instead, everything appears in shades of gray. Flip on a light, and the retina’s cones activate, relaying color information to the brain.

When considering whether animals see in color, one approach is to look to the structure of the eyes to see if cones are present. Many nocturnal animals that scientists have studied lack cones, relying instead on greater numbers of rods for extended night vision and keener detection of movement. As an exception to the nocturnal rule, owls do have cones, leading scientists to believe these animals do see colors. Most species of primates, birds, cats and dogs also see in color to some degree.

Humans have three sets of cones for detecting color in different wavelengths: cones that detect red wavelengths, cones that detect blue, and cones that detect green, though each cone detects a wide spectrum that overlaps to create other hues. Animals like cats and dogs have two sets of cones, making them color-blind to specific colors. They do, however, have many more rods than humans, giving them greater night vision and a keener ability to detect motion.

For example, dogs can’t distinguish between green and orange which will both look grayish. Toss a bright orange tennis ball across a green lawn and you’ll find a dog can follow it fine while it’s in motion. Once it comes to rest a distracted dog might lose the ball against the background. Only its shape will cause it to stand out. In humans, green color blindness is referred to as deuteranopia.

Feline animals see in color, but they have trouble distinguishing reds; the human counterpart being protanopia. Reds appear as differing shades of gray to a cat. It is believed both dogs and cats see mainly in grays, yellows, and blues.

Honeybees and butterflies have three pigment visual receptors with true color vision within their visual spectrum. This spectrum stops short of the infrared but extends into the ultra-violet beyond human vision. Not only can these animals see colors, they can detect a mix of colors as well as pure colors.

It is believed coral reef fishes see close to the same rich spectrum of colors that humans see, as evidenced by the many colors present in a coral reef environment. Though not an iron clad assumption, the animal kingdom has evolved bright coloring to both ward off predators and attract mates – an evolutionary feature that would seem to be lost on animals that cannot see color. However, exceptions exist here too and the assumption is somewhat general and speculative.

Sea mammals like sea lions, dolphins and whales possess a single type of cone for detecting patterns in light, but not colors. This is known as cone monochromacy and these animals are believed to be totally color-blind.

While it might be true that the animals we most closely associate with do not share the same rich spectrum of colors that humans enjoy, it’s probably safe to say that many diurnal animals see in color to some degree. Hence, the next time you find yourself walking down the aisle of your favorite pet store with your cat or dog in mind, you might pass up the red, green and orange toys to get something in a nice, bright shade of blue or yellow.

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Discussion Comments
By anon997765 — On Feb 25, 2017

I think it's arrogant of humans to say that we know everything about animals just because we've dissected parts of them or we've put them through tests. Until they speak to us, I'm withholding my total belief of scientific findings as being 'that's all there is". I keep thinking of "So long, and thanks for all the fish" - the message from the dolphins, the fourth book in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, just before the Earth was going to be destroyed.

By anon957353 — On Jun 19, 2014

Do deer see in colors and the human aura?

By Perdido — On Jan 23, 2013
I never really thought about why we can't see color at night. I always assumed it was as simple as a lack of light to illuminate objects, but now I see that our cones have to be activated by light, as well.

There's something refreshing about the lack of color on a moonlit night outdoors. Everything is suddenly equal, because it is all bathed in shades of blue-grey light, and it's very calming. There's no sensory overload.

By cloudel — On Jan 22, 2013

@anon65827 – I've heard that bees can see colors, but they can't see red. They don't just rely on sight to find the flowers, though. They also rely on scent.

A good example of this is an apple tree. The blossoms are white and pink, and since a bee can't see red hues, it probably doesn't know this. However, the scent is very strong and wonderful, so my apple trees are literally swarming with bees in the spring.

I've also heard that butterflies can see much better than bees. They can even see red. So, they might be a bit better at finding nectar.

By kylee07drg — On Jan 22, 2013

The animals that only see blues and yellows get to enjoy a couple of things that nature has to offer. They can see the beauty of a blue sky and the pretty yellow sunlight on a cloudless day.

By StarJo — On Jan 21, 2013
I wonder why pet stores even carry orange and green balls, then. It seems like a bad idea.

My golden retriever loves to fetch balls, but I've noticed that he can't tell where the bright orange one is if he loses track of it in the air. He has a bad habit of running ahead before I throw the ball, so he often has to listen for the bounce when it lands.

Many times, it has rolled to a stop while he is desperately searching for it. It has always amazed me that he couldn't see that neon orange ball lying in the grass, but now I know why.

By anon158653 — On Mar 08, 2011

Just because we use color for wavelength information does not mean a predator would. It is more likely that a predator's brain would have evolved color coding in their vision for movement information in the same way we show doppler radar in color.

I suspect if anything moves the dog's vision lights up in color giving an idea of direction and acceleration. This could be why dogs are such enthusiastic car passengers as the rapid movement would create a kaleidoscope of colours. You cannot assume from the absence of eye receptors that color vision is missing. --Mike D.

By anon101316 — On Aug 02, 2010

are there any animals that see in the ultra-violet range?

By anon92060 — On Jun 25, 2010

So does this allow animals to see angels? Since they have strong blue and yellow tones in their aura and not red?

By anon71845 — On Mar 20, 2010

Animals are able to distinguish certain colours, so isn't it obvious that if animals are to survive they would have to adapt to the colours that their predator or helper would be able to see? otherwise how would they survive?

By anon65827 — On Feb 16, 2010

It would be ridiculous if animals can't see in color. I mean, many snakes, plants, fish and such have very strong colors, telling the other animals that they are poisonous! If they can't see colors anyway, what's the point in it?

Also, flowers have strong colors! If the bees can't see in color, what use would the strong color have?

By anon57686 — On Dec 26, 2009

Do deer see in color?

By anon45314 — On Sep 15, 2009

What color do turtles see?

By anon44823 — On Sep 10, 2009

do bulls actually see red?

By anon25494 — On Jan 30, 2009

Do kangaroos have cones in their eyes? Do they see in color? -Matt

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