The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Here’s why goats have those freaky eyes

A new study examines how they got their goat eyes. (Andrea De Silva/Reuters)

Goats have the worst eyes. Those horizontal slits are really creepy, right?

In a study published last week in Science Advances, researchers from UC Berkeley and Durham University examined the pupil shapes of goats — and of 213 other land species — to look for patterns. They found that ecological niche — in other words, whether you're the hunter or the hunted — is a great predictor of how your eyes will be shaped. It's not an entirely new idea, but now they've confirmed the trend in a large number of species, and taken a closer look at how important the variation might be.

New research led by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that the shape of some animals' pupils could reveal whether one is hunter or hunted. (Video: Gordon Love/Durham University/UC Berkeley)

“For species that are active both night and day, like domestic cats, slit pupils provide the dynamic range needed to help them see in dim light yet not get blinded by the midday sun,” lead author Martin Banks of UC Berkeley said in a statement. “However, this hypothesis does not explain why slits are either vertical or horizontal. Why don’t we see diagonal slits? This study is the first attempt to explain why orientation matters.”

[This new software can give you animal vision]

Circular pupils, like our own (or like a big cat's) tend to belong to predators. Side-slanted eyes like a goat's belong to grazing prey.

Using computer models, the researchers confirmed that sideways eyes produce a much wider field of vision than eyes like our own.

The shape of their pupils also allows them to take in more light. Meanwhile, they aren't absorbing as much light from above their heads, which keeps the sun from bleaching out their view of the grass around them. This extensive peripheral vision lets them watch out for predators, and helps them see the entire terrain around them when they must plot an escape.

[Thanks to evolution, blind cave-dwellers are rapidly losing the visual parts of their brains]

During his research, Banks confirmed that grazing animals rotate their eyes when they bow their heads down to graze, effectively keeping their eye slits nearly parallel to the ground at all times — no matter the position of their heads. They can rotate more than 50 degrees per eye, the researchers say, which is 10 times of the human eye. That way the grazers can maintain a preys'-eye-view of the world even when chowing down.

The researchers also examined why some predators — like snakes and small cats — have vertical slits in their eyes, while other predators have round pupils. They found that proximity to the ground was the big determining factor.

[Octopuses don’t really need eyes to ‘see’ light: They have sensors in their skin, study says]

Vertical pupils make hunting by night a breeze, as they can expand much more than a round pupil, giving the animal more light to work with. The researchers believe they're also great for improving depth perception. Based on their calculations, the researchers think that the depth perception gained from vertical pupils diminishes as animals get farther and farther away from the ground. That could be why taller animals tend to have round pupils instead.

The researchers say their next focus will be on the pupil shapes of animals that don't live on land. That should get a bit more complicated, since at least one side-eyed sea creature we can think of — the octopus — is both predator and prey.

Read More:

This new software can give you animal vision

Watch awestruck people seeing color for the first time

Meet the eyeless man who says he can see (and is probably right)

An endangered giant tortoise population is finally stable, thanks to some aggressive goat eradication