When heading back to the lodge after dark, either the ranger or tracker will most likely be swinging a spotlight back and forth, looking for the denizens of the night.
Techniques vary, with some zipping that beam around so quickly you are convinced it’s just for show as there’s literally no physical way their eyes could be following it, while some are far more methodical, scrutinising trees, gaps in the bushes, and every possible hiding spot that might have a nocturnal creature concealed in it.

The spotlight is an essential tool in viewing the nocturnal creatures after dark.

As impressive as many of the trackers are at picking things out of the darkness, their secret is that they’re not actually looking for animals. What they’re really looking for (and this is where nature has played right into the safari industry’s hands), is the eye-shine of the nocturnal creatures, that acts like a beacon, pinpointing an animal’s position even from hundreds of metres away.

Camp Pan Eye Jt

The old Camp Pan male with a hoisted impala kill at dusk. If one looks at his left, it is clear that a certain amount of light is being reflected back out of his pupil.

Without eye-shine, it would be infinitely harder to find things after dark, as colours, shapes and patterns are far more difficult to discern in the limited beam of the spotlight. So skilled are many of the trackers that from a simple combination of the colour of the eye-shine, the height of the eyes and their width apart, they can immediately tell what species it is, without actually seeing the animal itself.

But what is it that causes the actual eye-shine?

Tapetum

If one looks at the above diagram of an eye, you will notice that just behind the retina (the part of the eye that converts light into neural signals to send to the brain), there is a layer called the tapetum lucidumThis is a reflective layer which sends light back through the retina, greatly increasing the amount of light available to be interpreted into an image. Animals that are in possession of such layers therefore have far better nocturnal vision than those that don’t, and it is this reflected light that we call eye-shine.

Lions have a tapetum lucidum, humans do not, which is why we cannot see as well at night as the great felines.

That’s the simple part.

Matimba Lion Spotlight JT

The tapetum lucidum plays a large part in making lions such superb nocturnal hunters.

The complex reality is there is not one single kind of tapetum lucidum, but rather four different classifications, all with long Latin names that we’re not going to go into here. Suffice it to say that the different types of tapeta lucida vary significantly in their makeups, with some being composed of reflective crystals and some of extracellular fibers, with their positions in eyes also varying between species. Bats, sheep, crocodiles, cows, leopards and even spiders… all will reflect light back through their eyes if you shine a spotlight at them.
Eye-shine is really a type of iridescence, which is why some animals’ eyes shine in different colours, depending on what the crystal makeup is of the tapetum lucidum, which is how most trackers and some rangers can become so good at distinguishing between species without seeing the actual animal.

Scops Owl Spotlight Jt

Owls, absolute masters of the night skies, would most likely be bumping into trees without a tapetum lucidum.

The red-eye you often see in photos of people taken with a flash is not the reflection of a tapetum lucidum. We don’t have one. That is merely light reflecting off the capillaries in the back of our eyes. Sadly we are doomed to have significantly poorer night-vision than many creatures, which might only be rectified by a few hundred thousand years of evolution.

Can’t wait that long? The good news is there’s a solution. It’s called a torch.

About the Author

James Tyrrell

Photographic Guide/Media Team

James had hardly touched a camera when he came to Londolozi, but his writing skills were well developed, and he was quickly snapped up by the Londolozi blog team as a result. An environment rich in photographers helped him develop the photographic skills ...

View James's profile

6 Comments

on Why Animals’ Eyes Shine at Night

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Marinda Drake

Interesting blog James. Us humans are definitely inferior in the dark. Luckily there is technology.

Malavika Gupta

Another well written article, James. Unfortunately the talent of locating and knowing what animal lies hidden in the bush based on night eye color, is not limited to rangers and trackers. Poachers/hunters were quick to learn this trick as well.

Callum Evans

I remember learning about the ocular adaptations of lions somewhere, can’t remember the exact book though.

Callum Evans

I’ve also had a number of opportunities to find nocturnal animals from their eyeshine, including duikers, hares, springhares, nightjars, bat-eared foxes, genets, crocodiles, a couple of black-footed cats and aardwolves, and even a leopard (found it in our camp by first spotting its eyeshine and then illuminating it with a more powerful torch), not to mention the impala’s, gemsbok’s and zebras we also saw at night too. Spotlights are definitely a godsend, you just can’t blind the animal you’re looking at.

Denise Vouri

Fascinating and informative James. I’ve always loved night drives for the opportunity to spot those eyes in the dark. Last year I was fortunate enough to photograph a leopard at night feeding on her impala kill up a tree, after spotting her eyes with a torch. Priceless!!

Michael & Terri Klauber

James thanks for the lesson! Love the shot of the owl. You always seem to be able to find them – of course with the help of an awesome tracker!

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