We humans customarily assume that our visual system sits atop a pinnacle of evolutionary success. It enables us to appreciate space in three dimensions, to detect objects from a distance and to move about safely. We are exquisitely able to recognize other individuals and to read their emotions from mere glimpses of their faces. In fact, we are such visual animals that we have difficulty imagining the sensory worlds of creatures whose capacities extend to other realms--a night-hunting bat, for example, that finds small insects by listening to the echoes of its own high-pitched call.

Our knowledge of color vision is, quite naturally, based primarily on what humans see: researchers can easily perform experiments on cooperative human subjects to discover, say, what mixtures of colors look the same or different. Although scientists have obtained supporting information from a variety of other species by recording the firing of neurons, we remained unaware until the early 1970s that many vertebrates, mostly animals other than mammals, see colors in a part of the spectrum that is invisible to humans: the near ultraviolet.