The way different species view colors varies wildly across the animal kingdom. Human eyes, for example, are sensitive to the colors red, green, and blue, a step up from most of our fellow mammals who are only sensitive to blue and yellow. Meanwhile, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects live in a brightly hued world of ultraviolet color invisible to the human eye.
With a new camera technology developed by a group of researchers at the University of Exeter, anyone can now get a glimpse of the world through the eyes of other animals. The free, open-source software converts digital photos to “animal vision” using an ultraviolet filter that shows the images as they would look to a member of another species.
Here’s how it works: the software equips a digital camera with different settings for commonly studied animals such as honey bees, peafowl, blue tits, ferrets and fish. Once set to a specific species, the software combines one photo taken through visible-pass filter with a second taken through an ultraviolet-pass filter. Looking at an image of a flower overlaid with a UV-filter, for instance, brings out a bright neon color invisible to humans but attractive to UV-sensitive pollinators like honeybees.
In another example, a photo of two Aegean wall lizards basking on a rock shows more vibrant patterns on the male lizard when seen through the lizard vision UV-filter. This reveals a private mating signal from male lizards to female lizards that is hidden from other species without UV sensitivity, particularly predators.
“The software is mostly geared at scientists, or at least for gathering scientific, objective data,” Jolyon Troscianko, one of the researchers who developed the technology, writes in an email. “But there’s an army of citizen scientists, school science projects and student projects that could now start to gather useful data with nothing but a digital camera and grey standard.” Troscianko and his team at Exeter have already been using the software to study animal mating behavior, camouflage and animal predation, but he can also imagine it used in other fields like forensic sciences that require objective images, or even in paleontology to show extra details of fossils in the UV region. “I’ve also been advising an artist who will be able to use our software in a project involving bird vision,” he says. “Seeing the world through another animal’s eyes does seem to spark people’s interest in the amazingly complicated world around us.”
The software is available to try for free here.