Visual system of a naturally microphthalmic mammal: The blind mole rat, Spalax ehrenbergi

Howard M. Cooper, Marc Herbin, Eviatar Nevo

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Retinal projections and visual thalamo‐cortical connections were studied in the subterranean mole rat, belonging to the superspecies Spalax ehrenbergi, by anterograde and retrograde tracing techniques. Quantitative image analysis was used to estimate the relative density and distribution of retinal input to different primary visual nuclei. The visual system of Spalax presents a mosaic of both regressive and progressive morphological features. Following intraocular injections of horseradish peroxidase conjugates, the retina was found to project bilaterally to all visual structures described as receiving retinal afferents in non‐fossorial rodents. Structures involved in form analysis and visually guided behaviors are reduced in size by more than 90%, receive a sparse retinal innervation, and are cytoarchitecturally poorly differentiated. The dorsal lateral geniculate nucleus, as defined by cyto‐ and myelo‐architecture, cytochrome oxidase, and acetylcholinesterase distribution as well as by afferent and efferent connections, consists of a narrow sheet 3–5 neurons thick, in the dorsal thalamus. Connections with visual cortex are topographically organized but multiple cortical injections result in widespread and overlapping distributions of geniculate neurons, thus indicating that the cortical map of visual space is imprecise. The superficial layers of the superior colliculus are collapsed to a single layer, and the diffuse ipsilateral distribution of retinal afferents also suggests a lack of precise retinotopic relations. In the pretectum, both the olivary pretectal nucleus and the nucleus of the optic tract could be identified as receiving ipsilateral and contralateral retinal projections. The ventral lateral geniculate nucleus is also bilaterally innervated, but distinct subdivisions of this nucleus or the intergeniculate leaflet could not be distinguished. The retina sends a sparse projection to the dorsal and lateral terminal nuclei of the accessory optic system. The medial terminal nucleus is not present. In contrast to the above, structures of the “non‐image forming” visual pathway involved in photoperiodic perception are well developed in Spalax. The suprachiasmatic nucleus receives a bilateral projection from the retina and the absolute size, cytoarchitecture, density, and distribution of retinal afferents in Spalax are comparable with those of other rodents. A relatively hypertrophied retinal projection is observed in the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis. Other regions which receive sparse visual input include the lateral and anterior hypothalamic areas, the retrochiasmatic region, the sub‐paraventricular zone, the paraventricular hypothalamic nucleus, the anteroventral and anterodorsal nuclei, the lateral habenula, the mediodorsal nucleus, and the basal telencephalon. These results indicate that the apparently global morphological regression of the visual system conceals a selective expansion of structures related to functions of photoperiodic perception and photo‐neuroendocrine regulation. We suggest that the evolution of an atrophied eye and reduced visual system is an adaptively advantageous response to the unique subterranean environment. Factors favoring regression include mechanical aspects, metabolic constraints, and competition between sensory systems. The primary advantage of sensory atrophy is the metabolic economy gained by the reduction of visual structures which do not contribute significantly to the animal's fitness. © 1993 Wiley‐Liss, Inc.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)313-350
Number of pages38
JournalJournal of Comparative Neurology
Issue number3
StatePublished - 15 Feb 1993


  • microphthlmia
  • ocular regression
  • retinal projections
  • suprachiasmatic nucleus
  • thalmocortical connections

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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