Dr David Wilby



  • 2015-17: Postdoctoral Research Associate, Ecology of Vision Laboratory, University of Bristol.
  • 2011-14: PhD Student, Ecology of Vision Laboratory, University of Bristol.
  • 2010-11: Doctoral Training Centre PhD Student, Bristol Centre for Functional Nanomaterials, University of Bristol.
  • 2008-9: Industrial Research Placement, Millimetre Wave Technology, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Harwell.
  • 2006-10: BSc (Hons) Physics with Placement, University of Bath.


The detection of light by biological systems has many possible purposes. Arguably the most sophisticated of these is vision, in which the fitness of an animal depends on the ability to process visual information accurately and efficiently. The principles of physics are constant throughout our universe and photoreceptor systems have evolved under their constraint. Using optical methods to answer biological questions surrounding the structure and function of visual systems, my research aims to understand how photoreceptors exploit and contravene the laws of physics for the behavioural advantage of animals.

Research Projects

Numerical Methods in Photoreceptor Optics

Primarily I study the mechanisms of polarization vision and colour vision with a particular emphasis on the methods of optics. My current Leverhulme Trust funded research project is aimed at discerning polarization sensitivity phenomena in the cone photoreceptors of fish and uses methods such as microspectrophotometry, digital holographic microscopy and finite-difference time-domain simulations of realistic photoreceptor structures.

For my PhD research, I studied the optics of photoreceptors in birds, using the domestic chicken as a model. I used simulation techniques to make calculations of light transmission in single cones and double cones, uncovering how the complete photoreceptor structure contributes to visual sensitivity. In earlier post-graduate research I used intracellular electrophysiology to study the properties of the single photon transduction process in the insect eye.


Common hermit Crab ( Pagurus bernhardus )

Common hermit Crab (Pagurus bernhardus)



Visual Ecology of Hermit Crabs

My other research project concerns the vision and visually-guided behaviours of the common hermit crab (Pagurus bernhardus). I have been working with Ilse Daly and Martin How as well as undergraduate students to study aspects of contrast detection and self-assessment of camouflage by hermit crabs. In particular, we have been using 3D-printed artificial shells to gain insight in the ability of hermit crabs to control their own visibility through selection of differently shaded shells.



  • Wilby, D., Roberts, N.W. 2017 Optical influence of oil droplets on cone photoreceptor sensitivity. J. Exp. Biol. 220:1997-2004. doi:10.1242/jeb.152918. Cover image: here
  • Feller, K.D., Jordan, T.M., Wilby, D. and Roberts, N.W. 2017 Selection of the intrinsic polarization properties of animal optical materials creates enhanced structural reflectivity and camouflage  Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 372 20160336. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2016.0336
  • Olsson, P., Wilby, D., and Kelber, A. 2017 Spatial summation improves bird color vision in low light intensities. Vision Research 130:1-8. doi: 10.1016/j.visres.2016.10.009 Media coverage at: HFSP
  • Gagnon, Y.L., Wilby, D., Temple, S.E. 2016 Losing Focus: How lens position and viewing angle affect the function of multifocal lenses in fish. J. Opt. Soc. Am. A 33:1901-1909. doi: 10.1364/JOSAA.33.001901
  • Toomey, M.B.,  Lind, O., Frederiksen R., Curley, Jr., R.W., Riedl, K.M., Wilby, D., Schwartz, S.J., Witt, C.C., Harrison, E.H., Roberts, N.W., Vorobyev, M., McGraw, J.M.,  Cornwall, M.C., Kelber A, and Corbo, J.C. 2016 Complementary shifts in photoreceptor spectral tuning unlock the full adaptive potential of ultraviolet vision in birds. eLife 5:e15675. doi: 10.7554/eLife.15675 Media coverage at: ScienceDaily
  • Olsson, P., Wilby, D., Kelber, A. 2016 Quantitative studies of animal colour constancy: using the chicken as model. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 283:20160411. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2016.0411 Media coverage at: Phys.org, ScienceDaily, BritishBIrdLovers.co.uk, Lund University YouTube Channel & others
  • Jordan, T.M., Wilby, D.,  Chiou, T-H., Feller, K.D., Caldwell, R.L., Cronin, T.W., Roberts, N.W. 2016 A shape-anisotropic reflective polarizer in a stomatopod crustacean. Sci. Rep.  6:21774. doi: 10.1038/srep21744
  • Wilby, D., Toomey, M. B., Olsson, P., Frederiksen, R., Cornwall, M. C., Oulton, R., Kelber, A., Corbo, J. C., Roberts, N. W. 2015  Optics of cone photoreceptors in the chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus). J. R. Soc. Interface 20150591. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2015.0591 Media coverage at: HFSP