In the figurative words of John Roach, National Geographic, “(…) the sea has eyes in its stars.” Pardon… ?
To be precise: Scientists have discovered a species of brittle star, Ophiocoma wendtii, with crystalline microlens plates in its skeleton that have exceptional optical performance: according to Gordon Hendler and Joanna Aizenberg, the scientists that made the brilliant discovery, the microlens plates in the brittle stars outer skeleton are even compensated for physical effects that bother us when we fabricate lenses in the laboratory (birefringence and spherical aberration!). From the microlenses the light is focused onto nerve bundles located beneath to transmit the optical information to the rest of the body.
Although yet unproven, the whole photoreceptive system of the brittle star is thought to function like a compound eye, allowing the detection of predators or seeking out hiding places. The study of creatures such as O. wendtii has important implications for science. How the brittle star’s visual system works may be useful, for example, in developing technologies for chip design in optical networks and better lithographic techniques. Thereby, the microlens arrays of the brittle star O. wendtii proofs that nature is often a step ahead of people and foreshadows technical developments.