Does a Chinese Boy Really Have "Cat Eyes" That See in the Dark?

By Sarah Zhang | February 2, 2012 6:23 pm

The strangest thing about this Chinese boy’s light blue eyes is not their color. It’s the purported fact that he can see in the dark. His eyes are just like cat eyes, glowing blue-green when you shine a light in them, says this clip from China’s state-run English TV channel. The boy can catch crickets in the dark without a flashlight and even completes a writing test in a pitch-black stairwell. True, or too good to be?

Natalie Wolchover at Life’s Little Mysteries has rounded up some experts and their collective reaction seems to be, “Hmm…” (It doesn’t help that this video has been posted on YouTube under the name, “Alien Hybrid or Starchild Discovered in China? 2012.”) One possibility they consider is whether the boy has a mutation that produced something like a tapetum lucidum, an extra layer of tissue that helps cats see in the dark. James Reynolds, a pediatric ophthalmologist at State University of New York in Buffalo, puts a stop to that idea:

[T]here is no single genetic mutation that could produce a fully formed and functioning tapetum lucidum, Reynolds explained; such an ability would require multiple mutations, which wouldn’t occur all at once. Evolution happens incrementally, he said, not by leaps and bounds. “Evolutionarily, mutations can result in differences that allow for new environmental niche exploitation. But such mutations are modified over long periods. A functional tapetum in a human would be just as absurd as a human born with wings.

Instead of a tapetum, Reynolds suggests the boy may just have an especially high number of rods, our photoreceptors that work well in low light.

As for whether any humans can see in infrared, in an isolated, unverified Navy study during WWII, the U.S. Navy fed volunteers an alternative form of vitamin A, a component of photopigments, but deficient in the normal version. The volunteers supposedly became more sensitive to longer wavelengths, which the Navy hoped would allow them to send infrared signals invisible to the enemy. We don’t recommend trying this at home because you might as well just get some night vision goggles. That’s what the Navy ended up doing.

See more of Wolchover’s investigation over at Life’s Little Mysteries.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain
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