Chitons see with eyes made of rock

By Ed Yong | April 14, 2011 12:00 pm

As a fish swims over the ocean floor, it’s being watched by hundreds of rocks. The rocks are actually the eyes of a chiton, an armoured relative of snails and other molluscs. Perhaps uniquely among living animals, it sees the world through lenses of limestone, and its eyes literally erode as it gets older.

Chitons are protected by a shell consisting of eight plates. The plates are dotted with hundreds of small eyes called ocelli. Each one contains a layer of pigment, a retina and a lens. People have known about the ocelli for years, but no one knew what they were made from or how much the chitons could actually see with them.

Daniel Speiser from the University of California, Santa Barbara has solved the mystery by studying the charmingly named West Indian fuzzy chiton. It all started with a surprising bath. Speiser had removed the lenses from a chiton and dipped them in a mildly acidic liquid, which was meant to clean them. Instead, it quickly dissolved them!

The vast majority of animal lenses are made of proteins, which should be unharmed by weak acid. The chiton lenses were clearly different. Speiser soon found that they are made of a mineral called aragonite. Aragonite is a version of calcium carbonate, or limestone, and it forms the shells of almost all molluscs, from oysters to snails to chitons. This means that the chiton’s eyes – or the lenses, at least – are made from the same substance as its armoured shell.

Chitons may be the only living animals with rocky eyes of this sort. Another group of extinct oceanic animals – the trilobites – had lenses made from calcite, another form of limestone. Some crustaceans have lenses that contain crystals of calcium carbonite, but these float in a sea of proteins; the chiton’s lens is a single solid block of mineral.

Brittlestars – relatives to starfish – come closest. They have small “microlenses” of calcite, but it’s not clear if they actually use these to see. Until now, the same was true of the chiton lenses, but Speiser has clearly shown that they can indeed detect objects.

They’re not very sharp though. Based on his measurements, Speiser calculated that each one has an “angular resolution” of around 9 to 12 degrees. That’s the angle that two objects would need to form with the eye, for the chiton to tell them apart. By comparison, humans have an angular resolution of 0.007 degrees. “The image produced by the chiton eye is therefore over a thousand times coarser than that produced by our eye.” says Speiser. “Imagine a computer monitor with only a thousandth of the pixels that you’e used to – that’s what switching from a human eye to a chiton eye would be like.”

To test this in real life, Speiser exploited the fact that chitons normally lift their flanks to breathe, by exposing the gills on their undersides. When they spot danger, they flatten their bodies and lower their armour. A passing shadow will do the trick, so Speiser flashed black circles of varying sizes over the animals. He found that they only hunkered down when the circles had an angular size of 9 degrees.

When he used grey screens that blocked out an equal amount of light, the chitons didn’t react, so they weren’t just responding to darker conditions. They had seen something that had spooked them. These animals can see objects, but not in any detail.

The chitons react in the same way in air and water, which suggests that their eyes work equally well in both environments. That’s not surprising – chitons live on the tide line so they need to be able to see in both air and water. The images that they get may be fuzzy, but that doesn’t particularly matter. These are not eyes that have evolved to resolve fine detail. They just need to be sensitive enough to spot passing shadows.

For now, Speiser doesn’t know if the chitons can combine the information from their hundreds of eyes to create a single, unified view of their surroundings. The alternative is that each eye acts as a primitive motion sensor that detects passing objects. “Having lots of eyes can be good thing if you can’t move or can only move slowly,” he says. “It would take a chiton at least a few minutes to turn around to see if something was sneaking up behind it, so it makes some sense that these animals have eyes that face in all directions.”

It’s also important to have lots of back-up eyes if yours can literally erode. Chitons live in the tidal zone and limestone, salt-water and waves don’t make a good combination. “Over time, wave action erodes chiton lenses away,” says Speiser. “Chitons seem to make up for this by adding new eyes as they grow.”

Even though the rocky eyes seem primitive, they are actually the most recent animal eyes to evolve. There are plenty of chiton fossils, but only those that are younger than 10 million years have eyes. That is puzzling in itself. “There’s nothing all that unique about the habitats where you find eyed chitons. In fact, there are many species that live in similar rocky, intertidal habitats that don’t have eyes,” says Spieser. “It could be that chiton eyes are just really unlikely to evolve, so it took a few hundred million years for it to happen. I don’t like this answer though.”

To get a better one, Speiser plans on comparing eyed and eyeless chitons to see if he can work out where and when the eyes evolved, and match that to some change in the environment or the emergence of a new predator. By comparing eyed and eyeless chitons, Speiser has already hit upon something interesting that could tell us about the evolution of eyes in other animals.

Eyeless chitons still have cells that are sensitive to light, but they lack the retinas, lenses or proper eyes of the fuzzy chiton. Speiser found that one eyeless species was actually more sensitive to light than the fuzzy chiton, and could detect smaller changes in brightness. However, it couldn’t resolve objects. It can tell how much light there is in its environment, but it can’t see any images.

This suggests that the evolution of proper eyes was a trade-off for chitons – they gained the ability to tell the difference between objects and shadows, but they lost some of their sensitivity to light. Speiser now wants to see if this trade-off applies to other animals. If so, it could explain why so many groups have eyes as well as light-sensitive cells on other parts of their body.

Reference: Speiser, Eernisse & Johnsen. 2011. A chiton uses aragonite lenses to form images. Current Biology, citation tbc

The amazing ways in which animals see the world

Comments (13)

  1. Doug Henning

    “and math that to some change in the environment or the emergence of a new predator”

    Did you just use math as a verb there?

    to math
    v.t. to prove a link by further calculation.
    e.g. “I mathed my lack of money for dinner to yesterday’s wanton spending on books.”

  2. Doug Henning

    On the actual subject, this is absolutely fascinating. Genetic analysis of the fuzzy chitons might also contribute to an understanding of the potential pathway that trilobites took to achieve the same rock-eyed feat. It would be amazing to understand how this came about:

  3. Robert S-R

    I think you mean “match” instead of “math” in the third-to-last paragraph.


    Also, wow. Reminds me of the trolls from Terry Pratchett’s books. In the picture, are the black arrows pointing to working eyes, and the white arrows pointing to eroded eyes? (Eroding eyes… yikes… not fun to imagine happening to yourself!)

  4. Jim

    And take THAT irreducible complexity. Not only can nature makes lots of eyes of different types and function, it can make them out of rock.

  5. amphiox

    This suggests that the evolution of proper eyes was a trade-off for chitons – they gained the ability to tell the difference between objects and shadows, but they lost some of their sensitivity to light.

    This trade off seems to be like it would be standard perhaps throughout most if not all of eye evolution. Image resolution requires putting some structure in front of the photon gathering retina, like a pinhole or a lense, and that necessarily will reduce the total number of photons that will be able to reach the retina, reducing sensitivity to light.

    Lots of deep vent shrimp species have in fact done sort of the opposite. They evolved from shallow water ancestors (and some mature from shallow water larvae) that have fully function camera-type lensed eyes, but now no longer have such eyes as adults, and instead have naked retinas, sacrificing image resolution for maximum sensitivity in the very dark vent conditions.

  6. Yalpsan

    When determining that each eye has a an angular resolution of around 9 to 12 degrees, did the researchers consider that the input of multiple eyes might be combined to obtain the resolution the Chiton has? Each eye might be less individually. Neural networks and interferometry are powerful things.

  7. amphiox

    Not only can nature makes lots of eyes of different types and function, it can make them out of rock.

    The calcite lensed eyes of trilobites are among the earliest known eyes in the fossil record, for that matter.

    Modern brittlestars also have calcite lensed eyes.

  8. Facinating. I have trouble understanding how an animal can “see” without a connection to the brain. I suppose that’s why horseshoe crabs are being studied for blindness studies.

    And btw I’m glad to know all this cool stuff, but still – “Speiser had removed the lenses from a chiton”…wow, is that ever a euphamism. I’m not sure this gee-whiz discovery was worth torturing an animal.

  9. I have trouble understanding how an animal can “see” without a connection to the brain.

    Simple stimulus-response behaviors, the same way that single-celled organisms can maneuver along concentration gradients.

    Most of our reflexes don’t require sending signals to the brain… in theory, they don’t even require a nervous system, except we delegated the task to a central authority (spine).

  10. Thanks, Caledonian. I have the feeling I’ll have to look that one up for myself to fully understand it. I was under the impression that people who have lost the use of their optic nerve would not be able to see anything at all – so I should compare that to creatures who can bypass this requirement.

  11. Matt B.

    Emmy, if the eyes don’t communicate with the brain, then how is removing them torture?

  12. Well, to give you an analogy, your skin does not have a direct nerve pathway to the brain, but if someone ripped it off of you, wouldn’t it still be painful?

  13. Matt B.

    Um, my skin does have a direct nerve pathway to the brain. That’s why it would hurt. Use hair as an example.

    Since the chitons lose eyes all the time, it may be more like when we lose baby teeth than when we have our skin ripped off. But I’m glad you care.


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