Fish Eyes

One, two, three… Uhhhh? Where is the fourth fish
I just bought? Ohhhh! Perhaps if I look in from the sides of the tank or
peer down from the top or contort my head at just the right angle, I’ll be
able see it hiding within the rocks or corals or algae. Or maybe not. Or
perhaps if I wait until lights-out and stare into the tank with a
flashlight I’ll see it. Or perhaps if I stop sticking my face against the
glass, the fish will stop being frightened and come out on its own.

This scenario probably sounds familiar to many aquarists. After all, we do watch fish for pleasure. And in order to
maintain our fishes’ health, we scrutinize their appearance and
But we are apt to gloss over the fact that the fish are
capable of staring back. Not that they would since they don’t ponder the
world in quite the same manner as we humans do. Our relationship with our
fish then is mostly one sided. The fishes don’t care about our health one
iota. They are incapable and are too busy dealing with the their own
immediate needs in their own environment, within the confines of a tank’s
walls. Their problems are all survival related, from competition for food
or territory to hierarchical aggression from conspecifics to presentations
of possible reproductive opportunities. But most of the cues that set off
the behavioral responses from individual fishes are, in fact, visual in
nature. The fishes of our aquariums apprehend a wide range of colors and
shapes. They perceive allies and rivals thru color. And a pair of gawking
eyes is an easily recognizable threat as is the shape of a gaping mouth.
This is why we, as aquarists, should take a moment to appreciate life from
the perspective of a fish by delving into some of the aspects of the fish

We begin with a generalized discussion of fish eye anatomy.
‘Generalized’ because the term ‘fish’ is not scientifically descriptive of
the wide ranging and often distantly related species we think of as fish.
Basically, there are too many idiosyncracies in eye structure among the
various fish groups to be covered here. But we can start by stating that
the structure of the generalized fish eye is not far removed from other
vertebrate eyes like our own human eyes. Like the eyes of terrestrial
vertebrates, fish eyes have a cornea, an iris and a pupil, a lens, and a
retina. The process of actually turning light into images begins at the
retina, the parabolic shaped surface at the back of the eye, where photons
of light are received and transformed into electrical impulses for
interpretation by the brain. The retina contains the photosensitive
receptors, cells called rods and cones, which accomplish the task of
receiving light, transforming it into impulses, and directing it through
nerve fibers leading to the brain. We can appreciate the amount of
information transmitted thru the nerve fibers when we realize that the
vertebrate eye houses millions of nerve fibers relaying information from
millions of photosensitive cells.



Generalized fish eye in cross section. Spherical lens
(center) with muscle and ligament attached, protruding through pupil
ofyellow iris. Cornea (right) covering iris and lens.Retina (dark area)
containing the millions of lightsensitive cells.Optic nerve (lower left)
extending from eye.

A prominent characteristic of the fish eye, from the outside at least,
is its bulbous nature. Some of the reasons for this will become apparent.
The outer layer of the eye, the cornea, is dome-shaped and transparent. It
is the first to receive light. With the terrestrial vertebrate eye, light
travels through the air and hits the cornea. Because the air and cornea are
of differing densities, the light is refracted (bent and directed) into the
opening called the pupil. Water and cornea are of about equal densities so
there is little refraction with the cornea of a fish eye. Again, with
terrestrial vertebrates, the iris is the colored aperture that opens and
closes, adjusting the size of the pupil and the amount of light entering
the eye.

But in most teleost fishes, because of the protruding lens, the iris is
rigid, making the pupil a fixed size. Therefore, to compensate for the
amount of light entering the eye, an amount which could be too intense or
not intense enough to measure, the retina adjusts the position of the photo
receptors. And whereas our terrestrial eyes adjust to light levels within a
few moments, fish eyes take much longer. We can observe this in aquarium
fish that have been subjected to suddenly having their tank light turned
on. Such fish typically hide until their eyes have adjusted to the light,
which can take fifteen or twenty minutes. Certain lucky shark species have
eyes equipped with an adjustable iris. The silky shark, for example, has an
iris that is a vertical slit similar in appearance to a cat’s eye. (It is
interesting to note that in vertebrates, eye color and skin color are often
genetically linked. Like in house cats, for example, where coat color and
eye color change according to breed. Fish eyes are no different.) Behind
the iris is the most noteworthy feature of the fish eye, the lens. In fish
the lens is usually sphere shaped and rigid and protrudes into the pupil
opening, a very different arrangement than the lens of the human eye, which
is almost flattened and positioned behind the pupil. In both the fish and
the human eye, it is muscles acting on the lens that determine whether an
image is properly focused on the retina. The difference is that in the
human eye the shape of the lens is altered, whereas in the fish eye
focusing is accomplished by changing the position of the lens.


Angelfish eye (top left) with tear-dropped shaped pupil.
Grouper eye (bottom left) with an almost rectangularshaped pupil. Grouper
face (right) showing the advantage of having a non-circular pupil, the
ability to see more clearly forward.

Now that we know by what morphological mechanisms fish see, the question
arises, what do they actually see through their fishy eyes. Anyone who has
been involved with photography has probably heard of a fish eye lens. The
image through such a lens is so wide that it is distorted. Moving from the
center out, objects appear curved, the light bent inward. Originally, fish
eyes lenses were used to photograph the night sky, because of their
capacity to capture a lot of information. But for the purposes of our
biological discussion, they probably do not provide a completely accurate
representation of what fish actually see through their eyes. One reason is
that the lens of a teleost fish eye is eccentrically positioned, which
alters the lens-to-retina distance in certain parts of the image. This
provides fish with close up vision forward and far vision to the side.
Essentially, the fish is nearsighted when looking forward at a food item
near its mouth, but is farsighted to the side and is able to locate
possible predators lurking in the distance. But because most fish have eyes
situated on the sides of the heads, their ability to judge distance is not
as acute as it is with terrestrial vertebrates. (As humans our eyes look
forward so we have binocular vision and are able to judge distances fairly
accurately). And because their eyes are situated on the sides of their
heads, fish almost have a three hundred and sixty degree view of their
world. Of course, fish with broad heads or large tails have blind spots
they must compensate for by sweeping their heads from side to side.


Spherical lens of fish eye (left) protruding through
pupil opening of iris. Flattened camera-like lens of human eye (right)
sitting below iris and pupil.The human iris is therefore adjustable
according to light intensity,while the fish eye iris is not.


Because fish inhabit water, a dense medium that absorbs, scatters, and
bends light to a degree that makes seeing under water different and more
complex than seeing in air, they have evolved, our of necessity, specific
anatomical characteristics of the eye. In water colors ‘behave’
differently, and are not so easily differentiated. Therefore, fish eyes, to
varying degrees, are equipped with retinal cones, which detect color ranges
of color. Remember that there are two types of photo-receptors on the
retina of the eye, rods which are sensitive to light in general, and cones
which are sensitive to colored light. The ratio of rods to cones varies
according to fish habitat. A deep sea fish, for example, which lives in dim
light where rods are more useful than cones, may have a rod to cone ratio
of several hundred to one. Conversely, a coral reef fish, which inhabits
relatively shallow water where color abounds, may have a rod to cone ratio
of ten to one. In both cases rods outnumber cones, but cones are clearly
more useful on the coral reef. However, there is still much research going
on into why coral reef fish are themselves so colorful. One theory involves
the flaunting of bright colors as a warning to predators and another
involves colors as camouflage. But the salient point here is that most
aquarium fish do indeed perceive a complex range of colors, although their
perception of color is slightly different than ours. There are different
types of cones in a fish retina, and each one is sensitive to a different
range of color. Most fish, like humans, have red, green, and blue sensing
cones, but the range of each color sensed varies. Additionally, some reef
fishes, like damselfish, have been found to perceive UV (ultra violet)
light, and to have patterns on their bodies that can only be seen under UV
light, presumably for attracting the attention of conspecifics. This is
similar to markings that are found on some flowers, and that are only
visible to UV sensing insects like bees. There is much going on in the
natural world that is undetectable by our human eyes.

References and Further Reading

  1. Castro, Peter and Huber, Michael E. ; Marine Biology;
    McGraw-Hill College, 3rd Edition, 1999
  2. Gratzek, John B. (Editor); Aquariology: The Science of Fish
    Health Management
    ; Tetra Press Publication, 1992
  3. Moyle, Peter B. and Cech Jr., Joseph J.; Fishes: An Introduction
    to Ichthyology
    ; Prentice-Hall Inc., 2000
  4. Stoskopf, Michael K.; Fish Medicine; W. B. Saunders Company,
  Advanced Aquarist

 Mark E. Evans

  (4 articles)

Leave a Reply