The first proto-eyes evolved among animals 540 million years ago, about the time of the so-called Cambrian explosion. The last common ancestor of animals possessed the biochemical toolkit necessary for vision, and more advanced eyes have evolved on 96% of animal species in 6 of the thirty-something main phyla. In most vertebrates and some mollusks, the eye works by allowing light to enter it and project onto a light-sensitive panel of cells, known as the retina, at the rear of the eye. The cone cells (for color) and the rod cells (for low-light contrasts) in the retina detect and convert light into neural signals. The visual signals are then transmitted to the brain via the optic nerve. Such eyes are typically roughly spherical, filled with a transparent gel-like substance called the vitreous humour, with a focusing lens and often an iris; the relaxing or tightening of the muscles around the iris change the size of the pupil, thereby regulating the amount of light that enters the eye, and reducing aberrations when there is enough light.
Compound eyes are found among the arthropods and are composed of many simple facets which, depending on the details of anatomy, may give either a single pixelated image or multiple images, per eye. Each sensor has its own lens and photosensitive cell(s). Some eyes have up to 28,000 such sensors, which are arranged hexagonally, and which can give a full 360-degree field of vision. Compound eyes are very sensitive to motion. Some arthropods, including many Strepsiptera, have compound eyes of only a few facets, each with a retina capable of creating an image, creating multiple-image vision. With each eye viewing a different angle, a fused image from all the eyes is produced in the brain, providing very wide-angle, high-resolution images.
Possessing detailed hyperspectral color vision, the Mantis shrimp has been reported to have the world's most complex color vision system. Trilobites, which are now extinct, had unique compound eyes. They used clear calcite crystals to form the lenses of their eyes. In this, they differ from most other arthropods, which have soft eyes. The number of lenses in such an eye varied, however: some trilobites had only one, and some had thousands of lenses in one eye.
In contrast to compound eyes, simple eyes are those that have a single lens. For example, jumping spiders have a large pair of simple eyes with a narrow field of view, supported by an array of other, smaller eyes for peripheral vision. Some insect larvae, like caterpillars, have a different type of simple eye (stemmata) which gives a rough image. Some of the simplest eyes, called ocelli, can be found in animals like some of the snails, which cannot actually "see" in the normal sense. They do have photosensitive cells, but no lens and no other means of projecting an image onto these cells. They can distinguish between light and dark, but no more. This enables snails to keep out of direct sunlight.
and some annelids possess both.
The pinhole eye is an "advanced" form of pit eye incorporating these improvements, most notably a small aperture (which may be adjustable) and deep pit. It is only found in the nautiloids. Without a lens to focus the image, it produces a blurry image, and will blur out a point to the size of the aperture. Consequently, nautiloids can't discriminate between objects closer than 11°. Shrinking the aperture would produce a sharper image, but let in less light.
Heterogeneous eyes have evolved at least eight times—four or more times in gastropods, once in the copepods, once in the annelids and once in the cephalopods. No aquatic organisms possess homogeneous lenses; presumably the evolutionary pressure for a heterogeneous lens is great enough for this stage to be quickly "outgrown".
One weakness of this eye construction is that chromatic aberration is still quite high – although for organisms without colour vision, this is a very minor concern.
This eye creates an image that is sharp enough that motion of the eye can cause significant blurring, and to minimise the effect of eye motion while the animal moves, most such eyes have stabilising eye muscles.
In the eyes of most terrestrial vertebrates (along with spiders and some insect larvae) the vitreous fluid has a higher refractive index than the air, relieving the lens of the function of reducing the focal length. This has freed it up for fine adjustments of focus, allowing a very high resolution to be obtained. As with spherical lenses, the problem of spherical aberration caused by the lens can be countered either by using an inhomogeneous lens material, or by flattening the lens. Flattening the lens has a disadvantage: the quality of vision is diminished away from the main line of focus, meaning that animals requiring all-round vision are detrimented. Such animals often display an inhomogeneous lens instead.
As mentioned above, a refractive cornea is only any use out of water; in water, there is no difference in refractive index between the vitreous fluid and the surrounding water. Hence creatures which have returned to the water – penguins and seals, for example – lose their refractive cornea and return to lens-based vision. An alternative solution, borne by some divers, is to have a very strong cornea indeed.
An alternative to a lens is to line the inside of the eye with \" mirrors\", and reflect the image to focus at a central point. The nature of these eyes means that if one were to peer into the pupil of an eye, one would see the same image that the organism would see, reflected back out.
Many small organisms such as rotifers, copeopods and platyhelmiths use such organs, but these are too small to produce usable images. Some larger organisms, such as scallops, also use reflector eyes. The scallop Pecten has up to 100 millimeter-scale reflector eyes fringing the edge of its shell. It detects moving objects as they pass successive lenses.
A compound eye may consist of thousands of individual photoreception units. The image perceived is a combination of inputs from the numerous ommatidia, which are located on a convex surface, thus point in slightly different directions. Compared with simple eyes, compound eyes possess a very large view angle, and can detect fast movement and, in some cases, the polarization of light. Because the individual lenses are so small, the effects of diffraction impose a limit on the possible resolution that can be obtained. This can only be countered by increasing lens size and number - to see with a resolution comparable to our simple eyes, humans would require compound eyes which would each reach the size of their head.
Compound eyes fall into two groups: apposition eyes, which form multiple inverted images, and superposition eyes, which form a single erect image.
Apposition eyes work by gathering a number of images, one from each eye, and combining them in the brain, with each eye typically contributing a single point of information.
The typical apposition eye has a lens focusing light from one direction on the rhabdom, while light from other directions is absorbed by the dark wall of the ommatidium. In the other kind of apposition eye, found in the Strepsiptera, lenses are not fused to one another, and each forms an entire image; these images are combined in the brain. This is called the schizochroal compound eye or the neural superposition eye. Because images are combined additively, this arrangement allows vision under lower light levels.
Good fliers like flies or honey bees, or prey-catching insects like praying mantis or dragonflies, have specialized zones of ommatidia organized into a fovea area which gives acute vision. In the acute zone the eye are flattened and the facets larger. The flattening allows more ommatidia to receive light from a spot and therefore higher resolution.
There are some exceptions from the types mentioned above. Some insects have a so-called single lens compound eye, a transitional type which is something between a superposition type of the multi-lens compound eye and the single lens eye found in animals with simple eyes. Then there is the mysid shrimp Dioptromysis paucispinosa. The shrimp has an eye of the refracting superposition type, in the rear behind this in each eye there is a single large facet that is three times in diameter the others in the eye and behind this is an enlarged crystalline cone. This projects an upright image on a specialized retina. The resulting eye is a mixture of a simple eye within a compound eye.
Another version is the pseudofaceted eye, as seen in Scutigera. This type of eye consists of a cluster of numerous ocelli on each side of the head, organized in a way that resembles a true compound eye.
Of course, for most eye types, it is impossible to diverge from a spherical form, so only the density of optical receptors can be altered. In organisms with compound eyes, it is the number of ommatidia rather than ganglia that reflects the region of highest data acquisition. Optical superposition eyes are constrained to a spherical shape, but other forms of compound eyes may deform to a shape where more ommatidia are aligned to, say, the horizon, without altering the size or density of individual ommatidia. Eyes of horizon-scanning organisms have stalks so they can be easily aligned to the horizon when this is inclined, for example if the animal is on a slope. An extension of this concept is that the eyes of predators typically have a zone of very acute vision at their centre, to assist in the identification of prey. In deep water organisms, it may not be the centre of the eye that is enlarged. The hyperiid amphipods are deep water animals that feed on organisms above them. Their eyes are almost divided into two, with the upper region thought to be involved in detecting the silhouettes of potential prey - or predators? - against the faint light of the sky above. Accordingly, deeper water hyperiids, where the light against which the silhouettes must be compared is dimmer, have larger "upper-eyes", and may lose the lower portion of their eyes altogether.
Acuity is higher among male organisms that mate in mid-air, as they need to be able to spot and assess potential mates against a very large backdrop. On the other hand, the eyes of organisms which operate in low light levels, such as around dawn and dusk or in deep water, tend to be larger to increase the amount of light that can be captured.
It is not only the shape of the eye that may be affected by lifestyle. Eyes can be the most visible parts of organisms, and this can act as a pressure on organisms to have more transparent eyes at the cost of function.
Visual acuity is often measured in cycles per degree (CPD), which measures an angular resolution, or how much an eye can differentiate one object from another in terms of visual angles. Resolution in CPD can be measured by bar charts of different numbers of white – black stripe cycles. For example, if each pattern is 1.75 cm wide and is placed at 1 m distance from the eye, it will subtend an angle of 1 degree, so the number of white – black bar pairs on the pattern will be a measure of the cycles per degree of that pattern. The highest such number that the eye can resolve as stripes, or distinguish from a gray block, is then the measurement of visual acuity of the eye.
For a human eye with excellent acuity, the maximum theoretical resolution would be 50 CPD (1.2 arcminute per line pair, or a 0.35 mm line pair, at 1 m). A rat can resolve only about 1 to 2 CPD. A horse has higher acuity through most of the visual field of its eyes than a human has, but does not match the high acuity of the human eye's central fovea region.
Spherical aberration limits the resolution of a 7 mm pupil to about 3 arcminutes per line pair. At a pupil diameter of 3 mm, the spherical aberration is greatly reduced, resulting in an improved resolution of approximately 1.7 arcminutes per line pair. A resolution of 2 arcminutes per line pair, equivalent to a 1 arcminute gap in an optotype, corresponds to 20/20 (normal vision) in humans.
All organisms are restricted to a small range of the electromagnetic spectrum; this varies from creature to creature, but is mainly between 320 and 800nm - the portions of the spectrum ranging from infra-red to ultraviolet. This is a rather small section of the electromagnetic spectrum, probably reflecting the submarine evolution of the organ: water blocks out all but two small windows of the EM spectrum, and there has been no evolutionary pressure among land animals to broaden this range.
The most sensitive pigment, rhodopsin, has a peak response at 500nm. Many organisms are unable to discriminate between colours, seeing instead in shades of "grey"; colour vision necessitates a range of pigment cells which are primarily sensitive to smaller ranges of the spectrum. In primates, geckos, and other organisms, these take the form of cone cells, from which the more sensitive rod cells evolved.
Most organisms with colour vision are able to detect ultraviolet light. This high energy light can be damaging to receptor cells. With a few exceptions (snakes, placental mammals), most organisms avoid these effects by having absorbent oil droplets around their cone cells. The alternative, developed by organisms that had lost these oil droplets in the course of evolution, is to make the lens impervious to UV light - this precludes the possibility of any UV light being detected, as it does not even reach the retina.
Rods cannot detect colour but are responsible for black and white vision; they work well in dim light as they contain a pigment, visual purple, which is sensitive to low light intensity. Rods are distributed throughout the retina but there are none at the fovea and none at the blind spot.
Cones are responsible for colour vision. They require brighter light to function than rods require. There are three types of cones, sensitive to red, green, and blue light respectively. The colour seen is the combined effect of stimuli from these cones. Cones are mostly concentrated at the fovea. Only a few are present at the sides of the retina. Objects are seen most sharply in focus when their images fall on this spot, as when one looks at an object directly. Cone cells and rods are connected to nerve fibres. When these cells are stimulated by light, they send off nerve impulses.