BACKGROUND: Cnidocytes, the eponymous cell type of the Cnidaria, facilitate both sensory and secretory functions and are among the most complex animal cell types known. In addition to their structural complexity, cnidocytes display complex sensory attributes, integrating both chemical and mechanical cues from the environment into their discharge behavior. Despite more than a century of work aimed at understanding the sensory biology of cnidocytes, the specific sensory receptor genes that regulate their function remain unknown. RESULTS: Here we report that light also regulates cnidocyte function. We show that non-cnidocyte neurons located in battery complexes of the freshwater polyp Hydra magnipapillata specifically express opsin, cyclic nucleotide gated (CNG) ion channel and arrestin, which are all known components of bilaterian phototransduction cascades. We infer from behavioral trials that different light intensities elicit significant effects on cnidocyte discharge propensity. Harpoon-like stenotele cnidocytes show a pronounced diminution of discharge behavior under bright light conditions as compared to dim light. Further, we show that suppression of firing by bright light is ablated by cis-diltiazem, a specific inhibitor of CNG ion channels. CONCLUSIONS: Our results implicate an ancient opsin-mediated phototransduction pathway and a previously unknown layer of sensory complexity in the control of cnidocyte discharge. These findings also suggest a molecular mechanism for the regulation of other cnidarian behaviors that involve both photosensitivity and cnidocyte function, including diurnal feeding repertoires and/or substrate-based locomotion. More broadly, our findings highlight one novel, non-visual function for opsin-mediated phototransduction in a cnidarian, the origins of which might have preceded the evolution of cnidarian eyes.