Octopus Eyes and Vision: A Comprehensive Guide (Better than Human Eyes?)

Octopuses have some of the most advanced eyes in the animal kingdom. Consider this:

Superior design: Octopuses have a unique, concave-shaped retina that is oriented in the opposite direction from the human retina, with photoreceptor cells located at the front of the retina, facing the incoming light. Our photoreceptor cells are hidden behind the retina!

Unique color vision: Despite lacking the specialized color receptors found in human eyes, some octopuses are thought to distinguish between different colors using a combination of chromatic aberration and pupil shape.

See polarized light: Octopuses are sensitive to polarized light, which may play a role in their ability to camouflage themselves in their environment.

No blind spot: The optic nerve in octopuses exits the retina from the side, rather than the center, resulting in a retina with no blind spot.

Focus like a camera: Octopus eyes have a fascinating mechanism for focusing that is similar to that of a camera.  Unlike human eyes, which use muscles to squeeze the lens and adjust its shape for focusing, octopuses move their lens in or out to achieve the same effect.

Anatomy of the Octopus Eye

Octopuses are known for their unique and fascinating eyes. Their eyes are similar to those of vertebrates in many ways, but they also have some distinct differences. In this section, we will explore the anatomy of the octopus eye, including its structure and how visual information is processed in the brain.

Structure of the Eye

The octopus eye is a complex structure that is well-adapted for underwater vision. It is similar to the eyes of vertebrates in that it has a lens, iris, and retina. However, there are some key differences that make the octopus eye unique.

The shape of an octopus’s retina is roughly similar to that of a human retina, with a concave shape that is curved inward toward the back of the eye. However, there are some important differences between the two types of retinas.

One major difference is that the octopus retina is oriented in the opposite direction from the human retina. In humans, the photoreceptor cells (rods and cones) are located at the back of the retina, facing away from the incoming light.

That’s right…in humans light entering through the lens must pass through blood and tissue to make it to the photoreceptors.  Not the greatest design, when you think about it!

In octopuses, the photoreceptor cells are located at the front of the retina, facing the incoming light. This arrangement is thought to help the octopus to maximize the amount of light that reaches its photoreceptors, which is important for their ability to see in low light conditions.

Another difference is that the octopus retina contains no blind spot, which is a region of the human retina where the optic nerve exits and there are no photoreceptor cells. In octopuses, the optic nerve exits from the side of the retina, rather than the center, which allows for a more uniform distribution of photoreceptor cells across the entire retina.

Another interesting feature of the octopus eye is its ability to detect polarized light. This is accomplished through specialized cells in the retina that are sensitive to the orientation of light waves. By detecting polarized light, the octopus can navigate and communicate more effectively in its underwater environment.

Octopus eyes

Visual Processing in the Brain

The octopus brain is highly specialized for visual processing. In fact, more than half of the octopus brain is dedicated to processing visual information. This is because vision is such an important sense for the octopus, which uses it to navigate, find food, and avoid predators.

Visual information from the octopus eye is processed in a number of different areas of the brain, each of which is specialized for a specific aspect of vision. For example, there are areas of the brain that are dedicated to detecting edges and contours, while others are specialized for detecting color and motion.

One of the most interesting aspects of octopus vision is that the brain can control the color and texture of the skin based on visual input. This allows the octopus to blend in with its surroundings and avoid detection by predators.

Overall, the anatomy of the octopus eye is a marvel of evolution. Its unique structure and specialized processing in the brain allow the octopus to see and interact with its underwater environment in ways that are truly remarkable.

Vision and Function

Octopus eyes are some of the most advanced in the animal kingdom, with a level of sophistication that rivals even human eyes. The eyes are located on either side of the octopus’s head and are incredibly large relative to the size of its body. They are also highly mobile, with the ability to move independently of each other, providing the octopus with a 360-degree view of its surroundings.

Color Perception

Scientists are still uncertain if octopuses can perceive color and whether they see a wide range of wavelengths, such as those in the ultraviolet and infrared spectrum.

Because octopuses have just one visual pigment, most researchers have concluded that they are colorblind.

However, some research suggests that octopuses may be able to detect colors.

Stubbs and Stubbs (2016) demonstrated that color vision process takes advantage of the lens’s longitudinal chromatic aberration, which can be used by monochromats (animals with only one type of color receptor) to get color information.

Chromatic aberration is a phenomenon that describes the differential bending of light of different wavelengths, resulting in the splitting of white light into its constituent colors. In most organisms and human-made optical devices, chromatic aberration is considered a problem to be minimized.

However, the chromatic aberration hypothesis proposes that cephalopods, with their peculiar off-axis pupil shapes, actually enhance chromatic aberration to detect color by monitoring image blurring as focus changes. Computer models have shown that this method of image detection is indeed possible.

This hypothesis offers a potential explanation for the unusual pupil shapes observed in cephalopods, such as the elongated slits in some octopuses and the W-shape of cuttlefish pupils. By exploiting chromatic aberration, these creatures may have evolved a unique and effective method of detecting color in their environment.

The method could also explain why some cephalopods exhibit colored intra-specific signals.

Further research is needed to fully understand the role of chromatic aberration in cephalopod vision and how they detect color.  It would also be worthwhile to explore the potential applications of this phenomenon in the design of artificial visual systems.

Depth Perception

Octopuses are thought to have excellent depth perception. This is because their eyes are positioned on opposite sides of their head, which allows them to see objects from slightly different angles. This difference in perspective allows the octopus to judge the distance of objects with incredible accuracy, which is essential for hunting and navigating through its environment.

Evolution of Octopus Eyes

The evolution of octopus eyes is a fascinating story that sheds light on the incredible abilities of these creatures. Over millions of years, octopuses have developed some of the most sophisticated eyes in the animal kingdom, rivaling those of vertebrates like humans. In this section, we will explore the evolution of octopus eyes, including their comparative anatomy, convergent evolution with vertebrate eyes, and adaptive radiation.

Comparative Anatomy

Octopus eyes are unique in many ways, but they share some similarities with other cephalopod eyes. Like squid and cuttlefish, octopuses have camera-type eyes, which means that they have a single lens that focuses light onto a retina. However, the structure of the retina is different in octopuses than in other cephalopods. Octopuses have evolved a retina that is oriented in the opposite direction of other cephalopods, which allows them to see more clearly in the water.

Another unique feature of octopus eyes is the presence of a cornea. The cornea is a transparent layer that covers the front of the eye and helps to focus light onto the lens. This structure is absent in other cephalopods, which rely on the curvature of the lens to focus light.

Convergent evolution with Vertebrate Eyes

Complex eyes have evolved independently several times during the course of evolutionary history!

Octopus eyes are so sophisticated that they have been compared to the eyes of vertebrates like humans. This is because octopuses and vertebrates have evolved similar solutions to the problem of seeing in a complex environment. Both octopuses and vertebrates have developed camera-type eyes with a lens and retina, which allows for high-resolution vision.

However, the similarities between octopus and vertebrate eyes are not the result of a shared ancestor.

Instead, they are an example of convergent evolution, where two unrelated organisms evolve similar traits in response to similar environmental pressures. In the case of octopuses and vertebrates, the pressure to see in a complex environment has led to the evolution of similar eye structures.

Close up of octopus eye

Adaptive Radiation

The evolution of octopus eyes has been shaped by a process called adaptive radiation. Adaptive radiation occurs when a single ancestral species gives rise to many different species, each adapted to a different ecological niche. In the case of octopuses, adaptive radiation has led to the evolution of many different eye structures, each adapted to a specific environment.

For example, some octopuses have evolved eyes that are adapted to low-light conditions, while others have evolved eyes that are adapted to bright, sunny environments. Some octopuses have even evolved eyes that are adapted to see polarized light, which helps them navigate in the open ocean.

Overall, the evolution of octopus eyes is a testament to the incredible adaptability of these creatures. Through millions of years of evolution, octopuses have developed some of the most sophisticated eyes in the animal kingdom, allowing them to see and navigate in a complex and ever-changing environment.

Role of Eyes in Camouflage

Octopuses are known for their incredible ability to blend in with their surroundings, and their eyes play a crucial role in this camouflage. By constantly monitoring their environment, octopuses are able to adjust the color, pattern, and texture of their skin to match their surroundings. This allows them to disappear from view, making them nearly invisible to predators and prey alike.

But how do octopuses use their eyes to achieve such impressive camouflage? It turns out that octopus eyes are uniquely adapted to detect and respond to changes in light and color, making them an essential tool for blending in with their environment.

One of the key features of octopus eyes is their ability to change shape. Unlike human eyes, which are fixed in shape, octopus eyes are able to deform and adjust their shape in order to focus on objects at different distances. This allows them to see objects clearly, even when they are camouflaged against their surroundings.

In addition to their shape-shifting abilities, octopus eyes are also incredibly sensitive to changes in color and light. This allows them to detect even subtle changes in their environment, such as the color of a nearby rock or the pattern of a passing school of fish. By constantly monitoring their environment, octopuses are able to adjust their skin color and texture in real-time, making them nearly invisible to predators and prey alike.

Overall, the eyes of an octopus play a critical role in their ability to blend in with their surroundings. By constantly monitoring their environment and adjusting their skin color and texture in real-time, octopuses are able to disappear from view, making them one of the most elusive and fascinating creatures in the ocean.

Future Research

As our understanding of octopus eyes and vision continues to evolve, scientists are exploring new avenues of research to gain deeper insights into these fascinating creatures. Here are a few areas of study that are currently being explored:

Gene Expression Studies

One area of research that is gaining traction is gene expression studies. By examining the genes that are active in the eyes of octopuses, scientists hope to gain a better understanding of how these complex organs function. This research could shed light on the mechanisms that allow octopuses to see in such a wide variety of environments and could help us develop new technologies inspired by the natural world.

For example, researchers have recently discovered that octopuses have a gene that allows them to see polarized light. This is a unique ability that is not found in most other animals, and it could have practical applications in fields such as optics and materials science.

Artificial Intelligence

Another area of research that is showing promise is the use of artificial intelligence to study octopus vision. By training machine learning algorithms to recognize patterns in the way that octopuses see the world, scientists hope to gain new insights into the workings of these complex organs.

For example, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have developed an AI system that can predict how octopuses will react to different visual stimuli. This system could be used to study the behavior of these animals in the wild and could help us understand how they use their eyes to navigate their environment.

Overall, the future of octopus vision research is bright. With new technologies and techniques being developed all the time, we are sure to gain a deeper understanding of these amazing creatures in the years to come.


Here are some frequently asked questions about octopus eyes and vision:

How do octopuses focus their eyes?

Octopus eyes have a fascinating mechanism for focusing that is similar to that of a camera.

Unlike human eyes, which use muscles to squeeze the lens and adjust its shape for focusing, octopuses move their lens in or out to achieve the same effect.

This is accomplished by contracting and relaxing circular muscles that surround the lens, which changes its shape and alters the angle of incoming light. This unique method of focusing allows octopuses to see clearly at different distances and depths in the water, making them highly adept at navigating their complex underwater environment.

Can octopuses move their eyes independently?

Octopuses have a unique ability to move their eyes independently of each other. This is made possible by the presence of seven extraocular muscles controlling each eye, each with its own nerve. As a result, octopuses can rotate their eyes by a remarkable 80 degrees in either direction.

Can octopuses see in the dark?

Yes, octopuses have excellent night vision. Their eyes can adjust to low light conditions, allowing them to see in the dark.

How do octopuses camouflage themselves?

Octopuses are able to change the color and texture of their skin to blend in with their surroundings. They do this by using specialized cells called chromatophores, which contain pigments that can be expanded or contracted to change the color of the skin. They can also use their skin to create patterns and textures that help them blend in with their environment.

Can octopuses see polarized light?

Some scientists believe that octopuses are able to see polarized light, which is light that vibrates in a specific direction.

Cephalopod sensitivity to polarized light may have evolved as a compensatory mechanism due to their limited, or even non-existent, color vision capabilities.

Given the exceptional ability of octopuses, cuttlefish, and squid, as well as some of their predators and prey, to perceive polarized light, it is reasonable to consider whether they might also utilize this visual information in their camouflage strategies, in a similar manner to color and luminosity cues.

This intriguing possibility warrants further investigation and could provide valuable insights into the mechanisms underlying cephalopod camouflage.


Stubbs AL, Stubbs CW (2016). Spectral discrimination in color blind animals via chromatic aberration and pupil shape. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 Jul 19;113(29):8206-11. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1524578113. Epub 2016 Jul 5. PMID: 27382180; PMCID: PMC4961147.

Gagnon, Y. L., Osorio, D., & Marshall, N. J. (2016). Polarization sensitivity as a contrast enhancer in pelagic predators: lessons from in situ polarization imaging of transparent zooplankton. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 371(1685), 20150042.

Kawamura, G., Yokoyama, S., & Kinoshita, M. (2001). Color vision of the giant cuttlefish Sepia lycidas. Journal of Experimental Biology, 204(4), 533-540.

Ramirez, M. D., & Oakley, T. H. (2015). Eye-independent, light-activated chromatophore expansion (LACE) and expression of phototransduction genes in the skin of Octopus bimaculoides. Journal of Experimental Biology, 218(10), 1513-1520.

Want to know more about octopuses? 

Check out my series of articles on these fascinating creatures:

How do Octopus Reproduce? (Cannibalistic Sex and a Detachable Penis)

How Smart are Octopuses? (Are Octopuses As Intelligent as Dogs?)

How Do Octopus Kill Their Prey? Can an Octopus Sting You? (Beaks and Venom)

Why do Male Octopuses Die after Mating? (How does Octopus Senescence work?)

Can Octopus Arms Grow Back? (Are Regenerated Limbs Just as Good?)

Why Do Octopuses Have 3 Hearts and Blue Blood? Secrets of an Open Circulatory System