Skip to main content Accessibility help

Deep-sea and pelagic rod visual pigments identified in the mysticete whales



Our current understanding of the spectral sensitivities of the mysticete whale rod-based visual pigments is based on two species, the gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) and the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) possessing absorbance maxima determined from difference spectra to be 492 and 497 nm, respectively. These absorbance maxima values are blueshifted relative to those from typical terrestrial mammals (≈500 nm) but are redshifted when compared to those identified in the odontocetes (479–484 nm). Although these mysticete species represent two of the four mysticete families, they do not fully represent the mysticete whales in terms of foraging strategy and underwater photic environments where foraging occurs. In order to better understand the spectral sensitivities of the mysticete whale rod visual pigments, we have examined the rod opsin genes from 11 mysticete species and their associated amino acid substitutions. Based on the amino acids occurring at positions 83, 292, and 299 along with the directly determined dark spectra from expressed odontocete and mysticete rod visual pigments, we have determined that the majority of mysticete whales possess deep-sea and pelagic like rod visual pigments with absorbance maxima between 479 and 484 nm. Finally, we have defined the five amino acid substitution events that determine the resulting absorbance spectra and associated absorbance maxima for the mysticete whale rod visual pigments examined here.


Corresponding author

*Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Jeffry I. Fasick, School of Environmental and Life Sciences, Kean University, 1000 Morris Avenue, Union, NJ 07083. E-mail:


Hide All
Baumgartner, M.F. & Mate, B.R. (2003). Summertime foraging ecology of North Atlantic right whales. Marine Ecology Progress Series 264, 123135.
Chan, T., Lee, M. & Sakmar, T.P. (1992). Introduction of hydroxyl-bearing amino acids causes bathochromic spectral shifts in rhodopsin. Amino acid substitutions responsible for red-green color pigment spectral tuning. The Journal of Biological Chemistry 267, 94789480.
Chang, B.S., Crandall, K.A., Carulli, J.P. & Hartl, D.L. (1995). Opsin phylogeny and evolution: A model for blue shifts in wavelength regulation. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 4, 3143.
Davies, J.L. & Guiler, E.R. (1957). A note on the pygmy right whale, Caperea marginata gray. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 129, 579589.
Fasick, J.I., Bischoff, N., Brennan, S., Velasquez, S. & Andrade, G. (2011). Estimated absorbance spectra of the visual pigments of the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). Marine Mammal Science 27, E321E331.
Fasick, J.I., Cronin, T.W., Hunt, D.M. & Robinson, P.R. (1998). The visual pigments of the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus). Visual Neuroscience 15, 643651.
Fasick, J.I. & Robinson, P.R. (1998). Mechanism of spectral tuning in the dolphin visual pigments. Biochemistry 37, 433438.
Fasick, J.I. & Robinson, P.R. (2000). Spectral-tuning mechanisms of marine mammal rhodopsins and correlations with foraging depth. Visual Neuroscience 17, 781788.
Franke, R.R., Sakmar, T.P., Oprian, D.D. & Khorana, H.G. (1988). A single amino acid substitution in rhodopsin (lysine 248→leucine) prevents activation of transducin. The Journal of Biological Chemistry 263, 21192122.
Goldbogen, J.A., Calambokidis, J., Croll, D.A., Harvey, J.T., Newton, K.M., Oleson, E.M., Schorr, G. & Shadwick, R.E. (2008). Foraging behavior of humpback whales: Kinematic and respiratory patterns suggest a high cost for a lunge. The Journal of Experimental Biology 211, 37123719.
Goldbogen, J.A., Calambokidis, J., Oleson, E.M., Potvin, J., Pyenson, N.D., Schorr, G. & Shadwick, R.E. (2011). Mechanics, hydrodynamics and energetics of blue whale lunge feeding: Efficiency dependence on krill density. The Journal of Experimental Biology 214, 131146.
Goldbogen, J.A., Calambokidis, J., Shadwick, R.E., Oleson, E.M., McDonald, M.A. & Hildebrand, J.A. (2006). Kinematics of foraging dives and lunge-feeding in fin whales. The Journal of Experimental Biology 209, 12311244.
Goodyear, J.D. (1993). A sonic/radio tag for monitoring dive depths and underwater movements of whales. The Journal of Wildlife Management 57, 503513.
Govardovskii, V.I., Fyhrquist, N., Reuter, T., Kuzmin, D.G. & Donner, K. (2000). In search of the visual pigment template. Visual Neuroscience 17, 509528.
Hunt, D.M., Fitzgibbon, J., Slobodyanyuk, S.J. & Bowmaker, J.K. (1996). Spectral tuning and molecular evolution of rod visual pigments in the species flock of cottoid fish in Lake Baikal. Vision Research 36, 12171224.
Lavigne, D.M. & Ronald, K. (1975). Pinniped visual pigments. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology. Part B, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology 52, 325329.
Lythgoe, J.N. & Dartnall, H.J. (1970). A “deep sea rhodopsin” in a mammal. Nature 227, 955956.
Lythgoe, J.N. & Partridge, J.C. (1989). Visual pigments and the acquisition of visual information. The Journal of Experimental Biology 146, 120.
Mathies, R. & Stryer, L. (1976). Retinal has a highly dipolar vertically excited singlet state: Implications for vision. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 73, 21692173.
McFarland, W.N. (1971). Cetacean visual pigments. Vision Research 11, 10651076.
McGowen, M.R., Spaulding, M. & Gatesy, J. (2009). Divergence date estimation and a comprehensive molecular tree of extant cetaceans. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 53, 891906.
Meier, S.K., Yazvenko, S.B., Blokhin, S.A., Wainwright, P., Maminov, M.K., Yakovlev, Y.M. & Newcomer, M.W. (2007). Distribution and abundance of western gray whales off northeastern Sakhalin Island, Russia, 2001-2003. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 134, 107136.
Merbs, S. & Nathans, J. (1993). Role of hydroxyl-bearing amino acids in differentially tuning the absorption spectra of the human red and green cone pigments. Photochemistry and Photobiology 58, 706710.
Molday, R.S. & MacKenzie, D. (1983). Monoclonal antibodies to rhodopsin: Characterization, cross-reactivity, and application as structural probes. Biochemistry 22, 653660.
Nakayama, T.A. & Khorana, H.G. (1991). Mapping of the amino acids in membrane-embedded helices that interact with the retinal chromophore in bovine rhodopsin. The Journal of Biological Chemistry 266, 42694275.
Nathans, J. (1990). Determinants of visual pigment absorbance: Role of charged amino acids in the putative transmembrane segments. Biochemistry 29, 937942.
Newman, L. & Robinson, P. (2005). Cone visual pigments of aquatic mammals. Visual Neuroscience 22, 873879.
Nickle, B., Wilkie, S.E., Cowing, J.A., Hunt, D.M. & Robinson, P.R. (2006). Vertebrate opsins belonging to different classes vary in constitutively active properties resulting from salt-bridge mutations. Biochemistry 45, 73077313.
Norris, K.S. (1969). Echolocation of marine mammals. In The Biology of Marine Mammals, ed. Anderson, H.T., pp. 391423. New York: Academic Press.
Nowacek, D.P., Friedlaender, A.S., Halpin, P.N., Hazen, E.L., Johnston, D.W., Read, A.J., Espinasse, B., Zhou, M. & Zhu, Y. (2011). Super-aggregations of krill and humpback whales in Wilhelmina Bay, Antarctic Peninsula. PLoS One 6, e19173.
Palczewski, K., Kumasaka, T., Hori, T., Behnke, C.A., Motoshima, H., Fox, B.A., Le Trong, I., Teller, D.C., Okada, T., Stenkamp, R.E., Yamamoto, M. & Miyano, M. (2000). Crystal structure of rhodopsin: A G protein-coupled receptor. Science 289, 739745.
Panigada, S., Zanardelli, M., Canese, S. & Jahoda, M. (1999). How deep can baleen whales dive? Marine Ecology Progress Series 187, 309311.
Piggins, D., Muntz, W.R.A. & Best, R.C. (1983). Physical and morphological aspects of the eye of the manatee Trichechus inunquis Natterer 1883: (Sirenia: mammalia). Marine Behaviour and Physiology 9, 19.
Pyenson, N.D. & Lindberg, D.R. (2011). What happened to gray whales during the Pleistocene? The ecological impact of sea-level change on benthic feeding areas in the North Pacific Ocean. PLoS One 6, e21295.
Tyack, P.L., Johnson, M., Soto, N.A., Sturlese, A. & Madsen, P.T. (2006). Extreme diving of beaked whales. The Journal of Experimental Biology 209, 42384253.
Watkins, W.A., Daher, M.A., Fristrup, K.M. & Howald, T.J. (1993). Sperm whales tagged with transponders and tracked underwater by sonar. Marine Mammal Science 9, 5567.
Watwood, S.L., Miller, P.J., Johnson, M., Madsen, P.T. & Tyack, P.L. (2006). Deep-diving foraging behaviour of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). The Journal of Animal Ecology 75, 814825.
Werth, A.J. (2004). Models of hydrodynamic flow in the bowhead whale filter feeding apparatus. The Journal of Experimental Biology 207, 35693580.
Winn, H., Goodyear, J., Kenney, R. & Petricig, R. (1995). Dive patterns of tagged right-whales in the great south channel. Continental Shelf Research 15, 593611.
Xie, G., Gross, A.K. & Oprian, D.D. (2003). An opsin mutant with increased thermal stability. Biochemistry 42, 19952001.
Yokoyama, S. (2008). Evolution of dim-light and color vision pigments. Annual Reviews Genomics and Human Genetics 9, 259282.
Zhukovsky, E. & Oprian, D. (1989). Effect of carboxylic acid side chains on the absorption maximum of visual pigments. Science 246, 928930.



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed