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Why Do Wolves Have Red Eyes?

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Have you ever wondered why wolves have red eyes? 

Wolves don’t really have red eyes. Wolves’ red eyes are merely an illusion. Their eyes contain a reflective layer called the tapetum lucidum, which sends light back through their eyes.

The tapetum lucidum is a membrane that reflects light hitting the retina of the eye back through it. 

This allows light pigments to absorb light a second time, increasing their sight in low-light conditions. 

Animals with this adaptation see better than other animals in dimly lit environments.

Do Wolves Have Red Eyes?

Wolves are often thought to have red eyes due to the reflective part of their eye called the tapetum lucidum. 

The tapetum lucidum is why wolves’ eyes appear to glow at night. It’s actually just reflecting light back from their eyes instead of absorbing it as humans’ eyes do.

When light is shone into the eyes of wolves, they merely appear red. This is a similar effect as when humans’ eyes appear red on photographs.

wolf at night

Why Do Wolves Eyes Appear Red?

Wolves’ eyes appear red because of the color of the reflective tapetum-lucidum crystals in their eyes. 

The color of the shining effect in wolves’ eyes may also take a different color depending on the angle of the light.

Many animals are equipped with this reflective layer known as the tapetum lucidum and can cause a shine in many different colors: red, yellow, green, blue, and white.

It appears as though wolves have glowing eyes when really it just has reflective parts within their eye.

wolf hunting at night

The Tapetum Lucidum

The Tapetum Lucidum is a thin, reflective layer (also called a retroreflector) found behind the retina in many vertebrae animals. This reflective layer gives them superior night vision by reflecting light back to their retinas.

In other words, the photoreceptors in wolves’ eyes are exposed to light twice, effectively increasing light exposure.

The tapetum lucidum reflects visible light wavelengths (making it why wolf eyes appear to be glowing).

This reflective layer is also found in other nocturnal predators, such as foxes, owls, and lemmings.

Eyes have two different kinds of photoreceptors:

  • Cones, responsible for detecting color.
  • Rods, responsible for detecting light.

Wolves’ eyes are built with a greater amount of rods compared to cones, and can hence see better in dim light already. 

Humans have approximately 4.5 million cone cells and 91 million rod cells [1], whereas wolves are believed to have a greater amount of rod cells compared to cone cells.

Hence, with the combination of many rod photoreceptors, and the reflective layer, wolves can see very well at night.

wolf in the dark

Color of Wolves’ Eyes

Wolves can have many different eyes colors:

  • Yellow
  • Green
  • Brown
  • Hazel
  • Light blue

The most common eye color for wolves is yellow.

When talking about eye color, we’re actually talking about the iris, which is the colored part of the eye. The iris is a ring of muscle (a sphincter) within the eye.

Related: Wolves eye color

Yellow

Most wolves have yellow eyes. This is simply due to their DNA, and since yellow eyes are a dominant trait, compared to green or brown eyes.

If two wolves breed, one with yellow eyes, and one with brown eyes, chances are that their offspring will have yellow eyes. It’s a matter of natural selection.

Yellow eye color is a trait found in animals, but not humans. This is due to differences in evolution. 

For humans, brown eyes are a genetically dominant trait. More than 70% of the world’s population has brown eyes.

wolf yellow eyes

Green

Wolves can have other eye colors than yellow, such as green. The color of the iris depends on levels of melanin, as well as DNA. Green is a rare eye color for wolves, as most have yellow eyes.

When pups, wolves have blue eyes. As they turn into other colors (mostly yellow), all wolves go through a phase with green eyes.

Light Blue

Most wolf pups have blue, or light blue, eyes. They’re born this way, as the pigment of their eyes makes them appear blue. This changes as they get older.

This is much like how human babies all have very dark colors, almost completely black. They haven’t received their eye color yet, but will as they get older.

wolf eyes close up

Blue Eyes in Wolf Pups

Wolf pups have blue eyes. The eye’s retina needs time after birth before its pigmentation becomes fully developed, which is why the pup’s eyes always look blue in the beginning. 

In addition, because there isn’t much pigment around for short wavelengths of visible light (blue) compared to longer ones (yellow), this makes them appear more reflective than normal adult dogs’ eyes will be.

The change in eye color is due to melanin deposition within the iris tissues – just like why human babies have dark eyes when they’re born and then it changes over time.

female wolf and pup

Do Yellow Eyes Help With Night Vision?

Having yellow eyes doesn’t help with night vision.

A study was done on glasses with yellow lenses, to figure out if they help with night vision. The results of the study were, that they don’t help.

Yellow lenses may help reduce the amount of light that reaches your eyes. They help reduce glare (which is why sunglasses have yellow lenses), which does the exact opposite of increasing vision during dim-light situations.

Hence, the eye color of wolves should have no effect on their night vision. It’s merely down to their sheer amount of rod cells and tapetum lucidum.

Related: Do Wolves Have Night Vision?

Conclusion

Wolves do not actually have red eyes. This is an illusion, made by the reflective layer in their eyes called the tapetum lucidum. This reflective tissue causes light that passes through it to reflect back. 

When light is shone into their eyes, it can appear as a bright, glowing red or orange-red against a dark background. 

Wolves have yellow, green, blue, or brown eyes, depending on their age. Wolf pups are born with blue eyes, as the pigmentation has yet to develop. As they age, their eyes change color from blue to green, and then from green to a shade of yellow or brown.

About Dennis Stapleton

Dennis Stapleton has a passion for animals, especially dogs, and their relatives. He’s intrigued by their social structure and loves to write and teach about the world's most popular pet animal.

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