A Blog by Ed Yong

The beetle with bifocal eyes

SunburstBifocal glasses allow wearers to focus on both far and near objects by looking through different parts of the lens. It’s commonly said that Benjamin Franklin invented these lenses, but they have actually been around for millions of years. In the streams of North America, the nightmarish larva of the sunburst diving beetle hunts with a pair of natural bifocal lenses.

The beetle relies on its keen eyesight to stalk other insect larvae amid often murky streams. It sees the world through no less than six pairs of eyes and in 2006, Elke Buschbeck discovered that each of these has at least two retinas. One of her students Annette Stowasser has focused on the front pair, and shown that they are unlike any other in the animal kingdom.

Each of these tube-shaped eyes has one lens and two retinas. One retina lies behind (and slightly below) the other but the lens manages to focus sharp images onto both of them. Humans might be able to adjust our lenses to focus on objects at different distances but the sunburst beetle can see things that are close up and far away at the same time, and with equal sharpness. Its bifocal lens potentially gives it two eyes for the price of one.

Stowasser discovered the unique properties of the beetle’s lens by carefully mounting some in front of a microscope and shining light through them. This simple but delicate experiment produced two focused images at different distances behind the lens – and these distances are exactly where the two retinas sit.

In the video below, a set of three lines has been projected through the sunburst beetle’s lens. The camera sits behind the lens and is moving backwards away from it. At 00:03, you can see a sharp image of the lines at the distance where the first retina is found. The camera continues to move backwards and the first image becomes fuzzy, but at 00:08, a second image comes into focus; the camera is now at the distance where the second retina sits.

The results were so unexpected that Stowasser had to check them with an entirely different method. This time, she shone thin parallel laser beams through the lens to see how their paths would converge behind it. She found that the lasers intersected at two separate points and again, these matched the distances where the retinas sit. A bifocal lens is the only possible explanation for these results. If the lens was simply misshapen (a condition called astigmatism), it wouldn’t produce two clear images.


The two focused images produced by the lens not only sit at different distances, they’re also vertically separated so that one lies above the other. If this didn’t happen the back image might blur the front one. As it is, the beetle ensures that both retinas get a sharp picture.

It’s likely that the other pair of forward-facing eyes work in the same way and Buschbeck says that she didn’t discuss them in the paper “mostly due to space limitations”. The other four pairs are a different story. “They tend to have much larger visual fields and they might be tuning into motion,” says Buschbeck. “From watching beetle larvae hunt it looks like that the side eyes are frequently used to spot potential prey, especially moving ones.  Once prey is spotted, the larva turns to bring it into the visual field of the front-facing principal eyes.  They always use the latter before striking.”

Among living animals, the sunburst beetle’s bifocal eye is unique, although it’s possible that trilobites – a group of extinct, armoured animals – used similar lenses. Despite the incredible variety of animal life, almost all animal eyes stick to a few basic plans, from the ‘camera-style’ eyes of humans and octopuses to the compound eyes of insects and their kin. When rare exceptions are discovered, they’re very exciting.

For example, in 2008, Hans-Joachim Wagner discovered that the spookfish has a split eye. One half points upwards and uses a typical lens to focus incoming light, but the other downward-pointing half uses mirrors instead. Stowasser writes that “only rarely do researchers discover an eye that diverges fundamentally from known types.” The bifocal eyes of the sunburst beetle clearly join the spookfish’s mirrored eyes in that category. Now, Buschbeck wants to understand how they evolved, by studying the heads of other species of diving beetles.

Reference: Current Biologyhttp://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2010.07.012

13 thoughts on “The beetle with bifocal eyes

  1. For those who still think of evolution in terms of a ladder with humans at the top it should be quite surprising that a beetle (and a larval stage) has eyes more complex (“advanced” one could be tempted to say) than ours. (The same people could be taught a lesson or two by many birds as well)
    What about the adults, do they lose the bifocal lenses?

  2. Just another reminder that “Evolution is smarter than you,” a mantra creationists should chant to themselves whenever they start thinking “I don’t see how evolution could have accomplished ____”

  3. Exactly Rhacodactylus! Evolution evolved humans slightly behind the point of being able to do correct punctuation.

    Like chimps! They have to spend hours picking ticks off each other in a perfectionistic fashion until they are quite uninfested. So we humans have other humans to clear up our spelling, grammar and punctuation screw ups.

    Or doing predictable things like mentioning creationism on a science blog! I mean who’d have thought it? What’s next? Mentioning science on a creationism blog!?

    Clearly our minds were evolved to the exact point where such predictable, sometimes error-ridden verbiage is possible on an unironic, monotonously regular basis. This means evolution is not only smart but has a strangely detached attitude of amusement towards the fumblings of humankind. Sort of like an experienced doctor who comes to derive a strange pleasure in seeing a given patient edge closer to expiry.

  4. The animal gets worse though: “Spotted diving beetles have also been observed swarming a prey item and feeding en masse”. So not only do they have super eyes, they also attack like swarms of piranhas.
    I’m frequently glad I’m not an invertebrate.

  5. Given their multiple eyes, I wonder what benefits, if any, there are to having the two focal distances combined in one two-retina eye, rather than in separate eyes.

  6. Re: Adult vs Larvae eyes, beetle adults have compound eyes (many small lenses with separate light receptors) and the larvae have simple eyes (like ours, one lense, in this case 2 receptors). Although both the larvae and the adults are aquatic/predatory, the affect of the selective pressures on the adults are restricted due to the compound eye limitations while the simple eye has seemingly more ‘opportunity’ for variation.
    But there are some cool adult aquatic beetles with split eyes (Gyrinidae), one pair looking down into the water for prey, one pair looking up into the sky for predators.

  7. If I ask the question, “Is evolution smarter than God?” will anyone get mad? ‘Cause it seems like the idea that God created everything in an amazing display of power and knowledge just makes people mad. Why is that?

  8. I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme. Did you create this website yourself or did you hire someone to do it for you? Plz reply as I’m looking to design my own blog and would like to find out where u got this from. appreciate it

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *