Apparently there're species around as rely heavily on sonar to sense the world around them.

E.g. Bat, Dolphin, Whale ...

The humans, and other terrestrial beings in a lighted world are capable of distinguishing colour in varying degrees of acuity. Is this ability to sense colour in our environment applicable to species (terrestrial, avian, and marine) that rely heavily on sonar?

  • $\begingroup$ Are you asking whether they can see color with their eyes, or whether they can detect the properties of an object that would reflect light in the "red" wavelength with reflected sound waves? $\endgroup$
    – DQdlM
    Dec 9, 2012 at 15:56

2 Answers 2


Any animal using sound cannot sense color though sonar directly, though these animals are not entirely blind and can probably see colors in the infrared we can't.

Even on the darkest night there is some light around and all bats use this. Old World fruit bats have colour vision, which is useful to them as they are often quite active in daytime, roosting on trees in exposed positions, rather than tucked away in dark crevices like most microbats, which can see only in black-and-white.

Dolphins have additional senses in addition to seeing they can sense electrical fields. So if an animal has its eyes covered, they will seem to be able to do things you would not expect. Its not the same as seeing the color though.

Such animals using sonar can additionally sense density and hardness as well as other material attributes which would cause the acoustic properties of the material as well as movement.

A hard-bodied insect produces a different quality of echo from one with a soft body, so bats can distinguish between some different groups of insects in this way. They can also determine the size of the object.

What's really interesting is that even human beings can experience this unusual sense. Blind people have learned to echolocate by making clicks with their mouth, and there is a movement to teach this skill.

Anyone can try it. In just an hour or two I was able to tell how close I was to a wall, whether the wall was concrete. I couldn't play video games (2:20 on the link) or see colors though.


Dolphins, seals and other sea mammals have a monochromatic view, only a green photoreceptor.


Most mammals have bichromatic B.G vision:

The evolution of trichromatic color vision in primates occurred as the ancestors of modern monkeys, apes, and humans switched to diurnal (daytime) activity and began consuming fruits and leaves from flowering plants.

Wiki evolution of color vision (see top ref to main article)

Humans see R.G.B. and bats see G.B.UV.

Some birds, shrews, tenrecs and rats can use simpler echolocation. (wiki)

Birds R.G.B.UV have five types of cones including four single cones, which support tetrachromatic color vision and a double cone, which is thought to mediate achromatic motion perception.

Rats Grey-UV (Rattus norvegicus) have two classes of cone, one containing an ultraviolet (UV)-sensitive photopigment and the other housing a pigment maximally sensitive in the middle (M) wavelengths of the visible spectrum.

Reindeer can see UV.

UV vision isn't possible with big eyes:

...the eyes of smaller birds were more UV transparent than the eyes of larger birds. This means that small birds, such as songbirds, can take full advantage of ambient UV light, while larger birds, such as swifts and raptors, block a lot of the UV light from reaching the retina.

"If you want to be highly UV sensitive — be a UV specialist — you have to be small," Lind said. "For me, that is quite thrilling because it means that your perception of the world is dependent on your physical size."



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