Animals See Colors, But What Are They?

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Animals See Colors, But What Are They?

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Animals see colors, but what are they? We’ve all heard that dogs see only in black and white, while bats are blind completely, but that’s not entirely true. Bats can see, just not well, while dogs are only colorblind from our perspective. We have three color receptors, while dogs have only two. They can’t see the color red and all other colors and combinations that go with it. Would a squid that can only see in blue consider a dog colorblind? Snakes can see very little “normal” color but can see in infrared, while bees can see in blue, yellow and ultraviolet.

This is how dogs see
This is how dogs see

The Visible Light Spectrum (colors we see) is but a small part of the larger Electromagnetic Spectrum, where X-Rays, Radio Waves, Untraviolets and Infrareds also reside. If you were to stretch and scale the whole Electromagnetic Spectrum as it would be the distance between New York and L.A. (2500 miles), the Visible Light Spectrum would be about one inch long. The sad part is that we don’t have built in receptors to see the rest that’s out there. And the ones we made ourselves, in cameras and such, recreate those “other colors” but in the ones we already recognize.

infrared image of penguins on the Antarctic ice. The colors most predominant are cyan, violet, blue, green with some red, yellow and orange.
infrared image of penguins on the Antarctic ice. The colors most predominant are cyan, violet, blue, green with some red, yellow and orange.

Just try to imagine a brand new color — it’s impossible. Or imagine trying to explain to someone who’s been blind their whole life what red looks like. You could say that it makes you feel warm and you associate it with passion, but what would they really understand or imagine red to be? They could know everything there is about light and color and it would still be as a foreign concept to them. There just aren’t words that allow someone to grasp the true meaning of something they haven’t experienced for themselves. This is something known as an explanatory gap.

Now let’s put things a bit in perspective. While we see all the colors that we see thanks to the three light receptors in our eyes (for blue, green and red), some butterflies have our three color receptors and then an extra two: red, green, blue, ? and ?. But if we are to take the Mathis Shrimp (video below), it has 16 such receptors. 16! We’d say just imagine the possibilities, but the whole point is that you can’t. So the question that “animals see colors, but what are they?”, the answer is: “We don’t know.”

Just look at this little guy’s inquisitive eyes and imagine how sees the world.