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Continuous and Regular Expansion of a Distributed Visual System in the Eyed Chiton Tonicia lebruni

Chitons have a distinctive armature of eight articulating dorsal shells. In all living species, the shell valves are covered by a dense array of sensory pores called aesthetes; but in some taxa, a subset of these are elaborated into lensed eyes, which are capable of spatial vision. We collected a complete ontogenetic series of the eyed chiton Tonicia lebruni de Rochebrune, 1884 to examine the growth of this visual network and found that it expands continuously as eyes are added at the margin during shell growth. Our dataset ranged from a 2.58-mm juvenile with only 16 eyes to adults of 25–31 mm with up to 557 eyes each. This allowed us to investigate the organization (and potential constraints therein) of these sensory structures and their development. Chiton eyes are constrained to a narrowly defined region of the shell, and data from T. lebruni indicate that they are arranged roughly bilaterally symmetrically. We found deviations from symmetry of up to 10%, similar to irregularity reported in some other animals with multiplied eyes. Distances separating successive eyes indicate that, while shell growth slows during the life of an individual chiton, eyes are generated at regular time intervals. Although we could not identify a specific eye-producing tissue or organ, we propose that the generation of new eyes is controlled by a clock-like mechanism with a stable periodicity. The apparent regularity and organization of the chiton visual system are far greater than previously appreciated. This does not imply the integration of shell eyes to form composite images, but symmetry and regular organization could be equally beneficial to a highly duplicated system by ensuring even and comprehensive sampling of the total field of view.