Finlay J. Stewart, Michiyo Kinoshita, and Kentaro Arikawa
The swallowtail butterfly Papilio xuthus can perceive the linear polarization of light. Using a novel polarization projection system, we recently demonstrated that P. xuthus can detect visual motion based on polarization contrast. In the present study, we attempt to infer via behavioural experiments the mechanism underlying this polarization-based motion vision. Papilio xuthus do not perceive contrast between unpolarized and diagonally polarized light, implying that they cannot unambiguously estimate angle and degree of polarization, at least as far as motion detection is concerned. Furthermore, they conflate brightness and polarization cues, such that bright vertically polarized light resembles dim unpolarized light. These observations are consistent with a one-channel ‘monopolatic’ detector mechanism. We extend our existing model of motion vision in P. xuthus to incorporate these polarization findings, and conclude that the photoreceptors likely to form the basis for the putative monopolatic polarization detector are R3 and R4, which respond maximally to horizontally polarized green light. R5–R8, we propose, form a polarization-insensitive secondary channel tuned to longer wavelengths of light. Consistent with this account, we see greater sensitivity to polarization for green-light stimuli than for subjectively equiluminant red ones. Somewhat counter-intuitively, our model predicts greatest sensitivity to vertically polarized light; owing to the non-linearity of photoreceptor responses, light polarized to an angle orthogonal to a monopolatic detector’s orientation offers the greatest contrast with unpolarized light.