An Entire World of Colour That We Will Never See

Close your eyes and picture a sunset. There is an orange ball of flame in the sky. Tendrils of tangerine, magenta, crimson, gold, and rose explode in a shower of rich and varied dyes. The blush of violet and quartz clouds roll through the splendor’s brilliancy of colours and light. As the sun sighs and begins its slow and regal descent, the silhouettes of birds paint the boundless masses of pink and scarlet with inky splotches. The sun dips down beneath the horizon with a sleepy wink. It’s reflection on the ocean’s rippling cerulean surface makes it appear whole once more. The Earth’s deep chasms and crested hills are almost in complete shadow, and the ocean’s glittering spray against the cliffs is slowly disappearing beneath the sparkling champagne azure. The biggest star in our solar system yawns and finally closes its eyes for the night, welcoming the light of a million more to shine.

Every afternoon, there is an explosion of colour that bursts into flame and tints the world with the saturated magic of light. The hundreds of tones and hues leave us speechless and in awe of the world’s beauty. But if I told you, that the sunset we see is only a fraction of the possibility, that there are animals out there that can see hundreds of thousands of more colours than we could ever possibly imagine, would you believe me?

We perceive colour through special cells in our retinas called photoreceptors. These receptors are split into cones and rods, the latter of which is responsible for seeing colour.

When a specific wavelength hits these cones, our brain translates the electrical signals of the light into a colour.

Most humans have three cones – red, green, and blue – which allow us to see millions of colours, from orange, to pink, to yellow, to purple. Everything that we see is a combination of these three colours. Without even one of them – such as red – our world and visual spectrum would become incredibly dimmed, in this specific case, the equivalent of a dog.

But in the animal world, there is an entire spectrum of colour that we will never experience. Where humans have only three cones, the bluebottle butterfly has fifteen, and the mantis shrimp has a whopping sixteen.  Everyday, they bare witness to an extreme richness of unimaginable colour. Their spectrum of colour is so remarkable, that they are able to use it communicate – they are the speakers of possibly the most beautiful language in the world.

We see only a fifth of the world’s potential, yet somehow a sunset is still beautiful. It is impossible to comprehend the absolute brilliance that a bluebottle butterfly or mantis shrimp must experience every time they see a sunset.

Our vision will always be dimmed.

Photo Credit: Amy Parikka

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