Puzzling connections between behavior, spectral photoreceptor classes and visual system simplification: branchiopod crustaceans and unconventional color vision
Why do many animals possess multiple classes of photoreceptors that vary in the wavelengths of light to which they are sensitive? Multiple spectral photoreceptor classes are a requirement for true color vision. However, animals may have unconventional vision, in which multiple spectral channels broaden the range of wavelengths that can be detected, or in which they use only a subset of receptors for specific behaviors. Branchiopod crustaceans are of interest for the study of unconventional color vision because they express multiple visual pigments in their compound eyes, have a simple repertoire of visually guided behavior, inhabit unique and highly variable light environments, and possess secondary neural simplifications. I first tested the behavioral responses of two representative species of branchiopods from separate orders, Streptocephalus mackini Anostracans (fairy shrimp), and Triops longicaudatus Notostracans (tadpole shrimp). I found that they maintain vertical position in the water column over a broad range of intensities and wavelengths, and respond behaviorally even at intensities below those of starlight. Accordingly, light intensities of their habitats at shallow depths tend to be dimmer than terrestrial habitats under starlight. Using models of how their compound eyes and the first neuropil of their optic lobe process visual cues, I infer that both orders of branchiopods use spatial summation from multiple compound eye ommatidia to respond at low intensities. Then, to understand if branchiopods use unconventional vision to guide these behaviors, I took electroretinographic recordings (ERGs) from their compound eyes and used models of spectral absorptance for a multimodel selection approach to make inferences about the number of photoreceptor classes in their eyes. I infer that both species have four spectral classes of photoreceptors that contribute to their ERGs, suggesting unconventional vision guides the described behavior. I extended the same modeling approach to other organisms, finding that the model inferences align with the empirically determined number of photoreceptor classes for this diverse set of organisms. This dissertation expands the conceptual framework of color vision research, indicating unconventional vision is more widespread than previously considered, and explains why some organisms have more spectral classes than would be expected from their behavioral repertoire.