How to Identify Animal Eyes at Night By Flashlight

Jul 31 , 2017


Q Beam

How to Identify Animal Eyes at Night By Flashlight

We’ve previously written about how fun night hikes can be—there’s less people around, a different set of fauna and, of course, a host of caveats and cautions to adhere to. When you’re hiking at night, or even if you’re just lounging around the campfire, it can be helpful to know how to identify potential late-night party crashers.

No, we don’t mean the rowdy camp next door (although, they can be a problem too), but nocturnal animals. The best way to know what you’re up against is by shining a light toward the area you think they’re inhabiting and deducing the danger by the set of eyes shining back at you. 

In this article, we’re going to look at the eyes of different night creatures and how you can identify them. 

Understanding Nocturnal Animals

Most nocturnal creatures exhibit the phenomena known as “eyeshine.” To understand “eyeshine,” it’s helpful to know just what makes a “nocturnal animal.” All eyes contain light-receptors—some are rods and some are cones.  We humans are diurnal (meaning we’re most active during the day) and therefore have much more cones, allowing us to see color and detail so to function better in the daytime. 

As you might imagine, nocturnal creature have many more rods, which function better at night helping the eyes to gather light and see the motion of potential prey.

But not all nocturnal animals demonstrate eyeshine.  Eyeshine is primarily caused by the mirror-like membrane at the back of the eye, known as the tapetum lucidum—Latin for “bright tapestry.” As light makes its way into the eye, it passes through the retina and is then reflected from the “tapestry” of cells, bouncing light back through the retina, and delivering twice the amount of light as normally available. Thus, when a bright flashlight is shined into the eyes of a creature with tapetum lucidum their eyes appear to glow!

Identifying Nocturnal Animals

Folks seem to go back and forth about the best type of bulbs to use for eyeshine and, in the past, it was incandescent all the way. Now, with the advances in LED technology, it seems you can use both. Light ratings will vary between animals, but for many, the sweet spot seems to be between 160-230 Lumens, or 40,700 to 58,525 candlepower. This would make our Q-Beam Performance 190 a perfect flashlight for looking for eyeshine!

Avoid using a strobe setting and keep your level and speed of movement consistent lest you spook the animal you’re trying to observe.

When you’re looking for eyes, you’ll primarily look for four things:

  • Reflective color
  • Shape of the eyes
  • Eyelid shape over the pupil
  • Pupil slit orientation

If the pupil is in a parallel pattern to the eye oval and is glowing red, you’re probably encountering a wild canine such as a coyote or wolf, which means you may want to turn tail and vamoose!

Red fox eyes are more akin to cat’s eyes with a perpendicular pupil and a red glow. Foxes can be recognized apart from other canines based on their pupil and their angled oval shape, which is a sharp contrast to the rounder curved oval eye shape of dogs.

Felines, both big and small, will have a heavy upper eyelid, and a pupil that is perpendicular to the shape of the eye. The eyes of cats will grow green in light at night.

Deer, on the other hand, will have a larger and rounder, less oval, shape. As the light reflects their eyes, you will most likely see a red or green reflection almost absent of pupils. 

If you happen to see large round eyes set closer to the ground, you have encountered a black bear. Black bear’s eyes are nearly pupil-less and glow red or green.

Finally, if you’ve encountered large pupils set in glowing yellow eyes somewhere in a high branch or rafter, you’ve definitely spotted an owl!


Spotting nocturnal wildlife by their eyeshine can be a fun adventure, but also one you should take very seriously. You should always be prepared, especially if you happen to encounter a dangerous animal while on one of your nighttime excursions.

Right now, we’re offering 20% off all items in our store, so there’s no better time to buy a quality flashlight, get out there and identify some animals!

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