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
  • Gary B

    Unlikely, but … what if it’s not about gaining the feature, but not having lost it? Perhaps human ancestors once had the tapetum, but a single mutation long ago broke the characteristic. And this kid just happened to get a reverse mutation that unbroke it.

    IIRC primates and parrots are the only mammals & birds respectively that can not synthesize their own Vitamin C. Primates have all of necessary steps in the enzyme chain to synthesize Vitamin C, except one. So such things do happen.

    It would be cool, but I suppose it would only work if the gene were fixed prior to fetal development!! :)

  • Chris

    @1 Gary
    I was thinking the same thing. Actually I like to use the Vitamin C fact as a counterexample to Intelligent Design/Creationism. Practically every other organism can make their own Vitamin C, but if humans don’t eat their fruits they get scurvy.

    I’m sure the Chinese government will study the boy and if it really is true, they’ll produce a new supersoldier.

  • Bobby LaVesh

    First off- we’re assuming this is real and not some internet hoax. It could very well be a hoax.

    Assuming that it is real: there are 7 billion people on the planet. 7 billion people born- each of us have some (usually nominal) mutations to our genetic structure.

    7 billion of us born- you would expect, logically, there to be some interesting mutations here and there in our population. Whether he has found a mutation to bring back a tapetum that our ancestors once had- or if his genes have stumbled upon a similar mutation- we don’t know.

    We don’t know his ancestors. His ancestors may have had all the pieces of the puzzle (minus one) in their genes and it took one final mutation to get the needed “ability”.

    Lots of animals on the planet have advanced night vision- and quite likely this ability has evolved on multiple occasions. Certainly- the reverse has happened many times- no-one would question a mutation that causes blindness- and this has happened perhaps thousands of times in our history.

    I’m not saying this is real- just that we shouldn’t discredit it without an investigation. The fact that the story originated from You-tube and not a reputable news outlet makes it suspicious. However, without a scientific look- we’ll never know.

    It could very well be that the genes for night vision have existed with certain people in China for many generations. Until recently many parts of China have been isolated from Western “eyes”- we really don’t know what’s been going on in their villages. Who is to say he doesn’t come from a long line of ancestors with augmented night vision? He doesn’t have to have had all the mutations necessary for a tapetum in one freak mutation.

    One last comment- I RTA that was linked and the comment about video not capturing his eyes “Flashing” like they would with a tapetum- this could be explained (if this isn’t a hoax) by his genes finding a different solution that doesn’t glow like a cats eye- or him having an intermediate step- he doesn’t have a fully formed one like a cat but has genes that make him one step more similar.

  • sports therapist

    Why is an opthalmologist giving lessons in evolution?

  • Katherine

    I think that there’s a much simpler explanation to all of this: blue eyes admit more light than brown eyes. It explains squinting in the bright sunlight and his ability to see better in low light conditions–the stairwell test was described as being dim, not pitch black. As to his eyes flashing (which isn’t captured on the video), I’m wondering if that was actually from him just having red eye in a photo.
    There would be a much stronger case for him having some sort of supervision if he was able to outperform other blue-eyed people in low light. If I’m just going off of what I see in the clip, though, he’s pretty normal. Well, either that or I’m ALSO a starchild/alien hybrid.

  • james

    well, you know what they say: you are what you eat!

  • Jean

    Horizontal gene transfer is far more likely to confer this type of adaptation than convergent evolution, especially if it has occurred in a single generation. A feline virus has the potential to acquire the relevant genes in a cat, then later deposit them in a human germ cell.

  • Innocent Bystander

    Could that simply comes from the diet of the boy? May be he eats a lot of blueberries or something similar? I have read stories in WW2 where British pilots ate more blueberries to improve night vision.

  • Gary

    Maybe he’ll be able to drive.

  • aaron

    Maybe they eat cats?

  • Sandra

    They were ALL squinting in the sunlight…and in the shade too.

  • http://discovermagazine.com Iain

    What a crock.

  • Shamed

    You can see where the normal Discovery readers posted and where the slashdot jerks joined in. I’m shamed to be more often from the slashdot crowd.

  • amphiox

    Unlikely, but … what if it’s not about gaining the feature, but not having lost it? Perhaps human ancestors once had the tapetum, but a single mutation long ago broke the characteristic. And this kid just happened to get a reverse mutation that unbroke it.

    If human ancestors once had a tapetum, but humans went on to lose it, we should see the presence of the tapetum in some close human relatives, but we don’t. No primates have a tapetum lucidum except a few species of lemurs and aye-ayes, and the evidence is more consistent with these species evolving the tapetum after they split from the lineage that went on to produce humans (and other primates).

    If just a single mutation broke the characteristic in humans, then the remains of that genetic pathway would still be present in the human genome, and we should be able to identify all the genes involved, and find that all are intact except for one, and that one that is broken must be broken in such a way that a simple single-step mutation can restore it (in other words, it must be broken by a point mutation. If it were broken by a deletion, or frame-shift mutation, then it cannot be fixed by a single-step mutation. Note that in your example of the Vitamin C pathway, there are no known cases of any human being or human relative with the same broken pathway re-evolving the intact pathway, as the broken gene is broken in an irreversible manner).

    And we have already sequenced to human genome. I don’t know if anyone has ever actually looked to see if there are tapetum producing gene pathways in it, but that is something we can actually go ahead and test.

  • http://www.springhole.net Syera

    I was also wondering whether it’s just that blue eyes admit more light. It might not make much of a difference, but it might be *just enough* of a difference.

  • Jim

    Is he color-blind? Color-blind people have a greater number of rods than color-seeing people, resulting in better night vision. I am color-blind and have been astonished on several occasions that people I am with in a low-light environment haven’t been able to see things I could see clearly.

  • Brian

    It may be a situation where a gene was turned off. What do you think?

  • yrag

    As others have said, out of 7 billion people, occasionally a tiny few will manifest some wonderful positive mutations, however, when the article reported that”(the boy) . . .completes a writing test in a pitch-black stairwell”. This is where we have a problem.

    Even cats—as well as other animals with fantastic night vision cannot see where no light is available. For vision to occur SOME light needs to bounce off of objects and into even the keenest eye for there to be vision.

  • http://www.pdinc.us Jason Pyeron

    I am convinced that it was not pitch black, even in a dark room for film rolling there would be some seepage of light under the door from the safety lights outside. That small amount of light alone is enough for me to distinguish the sprockets on the film negative.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jan-Marra/1139453450 Jan Marra

    Some people’s pupils seem naturally dilated all the time, the same effect you get from belladonna drops. Anyone’s eyes shine when light reflects off the back of the eyeball–that’s why we have red-eye correction. A writing test doesn’t prove anything. I can write in the dark–but it can’t be read even in broad daylight!

    • http://www.facebook.com/babyalt3 Rea Yanez

      Pls watch the video. It wasn’t just a writing test. The boy was made to answer some questions and he answered it legibly and filled blanks correctly.

  • http://www.facebook.com/babyalt3 Rea Yanez

    very well said. We shouldn’t believe anything but we shouldn’t discredit anything either. I will only call it a hoax if it is proven as one otherwise everyone should have an open mind to accept some possibility that this is indeed true.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeannie.b.richards Jeannie Boudreau Richards

    Jeannie Boudreau Richards I am so happy that you published this article. In my upcoming novel series, “The Yeshua & Miri Novels Series”, based on the missing years of jesus, Yeshua and his son Thomas both have striking, luminous eyes, and both are able to “see” into people’s souls. Although Yeshua’s eyes are golden-amber, Thomas’s unusual eye-color is described as a bright, lapis blue, much the same as Nong Youhui’s amazing eyes. Thomas is an angelic being, half angel and half human, and although he is a fictional character, based on Thomas the Apostle, it’s wonderful to be able to confirm that “special eyes” actually DO exist in the natural world!
    JB Richards, Author https://www.facebook.com/pages/Miriamne-the-Magdala-First-in-the-Series-of-the-Yeshua-Miri-Novels/206903979347028

  • http://www.facebook.com/amber.dextrous.144 Amber Dextrous

    While it is true that multiple mutations would occur over a long, long period of time, only the end result of that chain would be recognizable. The micro changes along the chain would be ignored or unnoticed until the final mutation that allowed for an observable difference. Factually correct, but faulty logic.

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