4 min read

What we can see via the eyes of animals in formaldehyde

a photo of a series of eyeballs in glass cases

® The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London [2017]. All rights reserved.

Animal vision is explored in this grisly, beautiful and thoughtful display of eyeball specimens

You may never wish to come eyeball-to-eyeball with a shark, but at the Natural History Museum in Tring they’re offering the opportunity to do just that. Not in the water, however, as most of the eyes you’ll find staring at you here are pickled within jars.

From alligators and anteaters to penguins and pythons, the museum’s newly-revealed showcase, Animal Vision, is brimming with some strange and eye-catching specimens. Although at first glance these gristly things may make you squirm, closer scrutiny reveals a whole spectrum of iridescent shapes and patterns that are really quite beautiful to look at.

Take for example the stunning reindeer eyeball, with its lustrous bluish tones that catch the very light it reflects, or the black-tailed gazelle’s eyeball, which can only be described as golden. Both of these specimens may easily be mistaken for some sort of lovely shell.

a photo of two eyeballs in two jars

Reindeer and gazelle. © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London [2017]. All rights reserved.

a photo of a group of eyeballs in specimen jars and cases

© The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London [2017]. All rights reserved.

These eye-catching specimens were donated by the ophthalmology section of the Royal College of Surgeons in the 1960s and 70s, as researchers came together to compare zoological anatomy specimens and even more fascinating than their visual appearance is the science of sight that lies inside them.

In common with many mammals both the reindeer and gazelle possess a layer of tissue behind the retinas that contains collagen and allows the neurons to detect photons in dark environments, causing them to have superior night vision.

This in turn gives the impression that the eyes glow in the dark; a phenomenon known as “eyeshine”. Eyeshine can take on a yellow colour during the summer months, becoming a bluish sheen towards the winter.

As well as how eyes respond to light and the colour spectrum, the display also reveals how vision can adapt to become clear or fuzzy, full of colour or shaded in grey.

a photo of a series of eyeballs in jars

© The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London [2017]. All rights reserved.

a photo of a series of eyeballs in liquid in jars

© The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London [2017]. All rights reserved.

a photo of an eyeball in a jar

Shark’s eyeball. © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London [2017]. All rights reserved.

Like many of these specimens, on one level the eyeball of the Greenland shark could be seen as a work of art, but the most engaging aspect of this object may not be the eyeball itself, but the ways in which evolution has allowed the shark to protect itself during hunting or an attack.

A sort of third eyelid, made up of a transparent jelly known as a nictitating membrane slides upwards to envelop the entire eyeball.

The Great White Shark, meanwhile, has the ability to roll its eyeballs backwards entirely, giving it a ghostly white appearance. To compensate for this lack of vision, the shark responds to static and chemical elements in the water.

A huge horseshoe crab and a deadly box jellyfish also feature in the display alongside a fascinating four-eyed fish and a diverse ‘Eyeball Wall’ which challenges visitors to test their own vision by seeing if they can identify the marvellous mix of animals peeping through at them. A slightly bizarre but safe way to encounter a python, shark or even a reindeer.

Animal Vision runs at the Natural history Museum at Tring from July 21 – November 1 2017. Admission is free.

venue

Natural History Museum at Tring

Tring, Hertfordshire

Discover the fascinating range of animals collected by Lionel Walter Rothschild in our beautiful Victorian Museum. It is home to the world-class research and collections of the Natural History Museum's Bird Group.