Fiddler crabs in Panama could help us to see the light

5 Nov 2012

A study involving fiddler crabs in Panama may lead to new ways for humans to detect polarized light.

A 13-week investigation conducted by Dr Martin How, a researcher at the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) at the University of Queensland (UQ), will examine how the crustacean’s eyes are optimally tuned to detect polarized light, which may lead to biomimetic applications in the field of optical filtering and image analysis.

Without the use of sunglasses or other visual aids, we are insensitive to polarized light and rely solely on colour and brightness for vision, says Dr How.

“We do know, however, that many animals have polarization vision which can be used not only as a compass for navigation, but also to detect water surfaces, to enhance visual power and even to communicate,” he said.

“Crustaceans polarisation sense tends to be spread across the entire visual field and is likely to play a role in a broad range of functions.”

“The crustacean visual system therefore offers a different, and relatively understudied, perspective on the form and function of polarisation vision,” he said.

The project will address fundamental questions in the field of polarisation vision, such as for what is polarisation vision used? How are crustacean eyes optimally tuned to detect polarised light? And can eyes adapt to new polarised light environments? Findings from this project would not only be of interest to visual ecologists, but may also lead to biomimetic applications in the field of optical filtering and image analysis.

Dr How, widely regarded as one of the world’s most promising young research scientists, received a grant from The Queensland-Smithsonian Fellowship Program to carry out his work at the Smithsonian Institute in the Republic of Panama - renowned not only for it’s world class facilities and researchers, but it’s proximity to natural populations of fiddler crabs.

Dr How will work alongside Dr John Christy, a world expert in fiddler crab behavioural ecology and hopes the project will help him to maintain a position at the forefront of research in polarization vision.