The TLDR Guide to How Deer Really See Color

The TLDR Guide to How Deer Really See Color

June 01, 2017

Over the last few years, more and more research has been done on how deer actually see color. Obviously, this has been closely followed by hunters, as this research has a direct impact on the camouflage they use. So let's do a review of the research and answer the question, "how exactly do deer see color"?

There has been an increasing amount of research, but let's pick out two of the more important ones.

1992 Electrophysiological measurements of spectral mechanisms in the retinas of two cervids: white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and fallow deer (Dama dama) - Jacobs. University of California.

2014 Behavioral measure of the light-adapted visual sensitivity of white-tailed deer - Cohen, University of Georgia

In the landmark 1992 study, the scientists sedated deer and shone different wavelengths of light in the deer's eye and recorded the electrical response from the eye. Apparently, "subsequent recovery of each animal was uneventful".

In the 2014 study, a behavioral approach was taken and scientists trained deer using various color lights at various intensities. They then measured responses across these wavelengths to determine which ones the deer were most sensitive to.

These studies confirmed four conclusions. Let's take a look at them in order of "how important" they are.

#1 TL;DR - Deer can see you blinking, but not in a tree.

Other adaptations in a deer's eye enable it to see the smallest motions. Wider pupils, wider set eyes and a "tapetum" allow it to be highly sensitive to any kind of motion. They also have a lower concentration of cone sells over a wider horizontal area. Weirdly, this means that although they have amazing motion detection, they can't see detail. Ever wondered why a deer sits staring at you for minutes on end? That's because he can't really see you well enough to figure out what you are. From a perspective of seeing details, deer would be legally blind if they were human. The other aspect of this amazing motion peepers is that they see more horizontally and less vertically. Hello Mr Tree Stand.

#2 TL;DR - Deer can't see red, but don't wear jeans.

Deer only have two "cones", that is the types of photoreceptor that see color. Humans have red, green and blue cones. Deer have only green and blue, they are "dichromatic". So deer are essentially red-green colorblind, specifically, they have protanopia. They would see reds and oranges as shades of green. In humans, this is a problem when driving because you can't see red car lights and traffic lights. Apparently, it would be about the same risk as driving drunk. Who knew?

Having protanope vision also means that deer are more sensitive to blue light, so yes, those blue jeans stick out like a neon glow to them. Blue camouflage patterns would be especially bad.

Interestingly from the 2014 student, Dr Cohen noted "“Because of the way deer see, depth in camo patterns really doesn’t matter, deer cannot distinguish minute detail, everything looks like a blob. Camo is made to be attractive to us."

#3 TL;DR - Deer see really really well at night.

The researchers found that as well as having only two types of cones, deer also had a fewer concentration of them. This was, however, made up by a greater concentration of rods. Rods are the photoreceptor cells that work in less intense light, or, as we light to call it - nighttime. They also had pupils that could let more light in, making their night vision even better.

#4 TL;DR - Deer can see your laundry detergent

Another adapation resulting in only having two cones is that the spectral range into the blue end of the deer's vision is increased. While probably not quite as impressive as the black light used by CSI to detect what's been going on in that bed, it's safe to assume that deer have increased sensitivity to ultraviolet light. The implication for hunters is a concern when washing their clothes. It's common for detergent to have "UV Brighteners" in them to make washed clothes look whiter and brighter. It's probable that this would be more noticeable to deer. There is a growing market in "UV Killer" washing agents for hunters, but you are probably ok with a) using a normal detergent that doesn't have brighteners, and b) checking your camo with a UV blacklight.

So What?

We didn't look at the other important senses of deer - smell and hearing. Let's just say that they can probably smell you from a mile away and hear you rustling those Cheetos. All things considered, vision is the last sense to worry about after you have made sure you have dealt with the other two.

Closing Thoughts

Well, modern camouflage is perhaps at a little odds with these research findings. The idea of complex patterns and colors probably isn't doing much compared to other steps you can take with regards to smell, hearing, and vision.


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The TLDR Guide to How Deer See Color

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Camo Suit Sizing

Our Camo Suits are cut baggy and designed, if needed, to go over the top of other clothes.

For example, here in Vermont late deer season can get cold with snow on the ground, so our suits are cut to wear a warm coat underneath.

Our sizes are organized by height:

If you are hunting in an area where you won't be layering, then these sizes can be ordered as is.

If you anticipated layering bulky clothes or are heavier for your height, then consider a size up.

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