AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
Sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch – these are the senses through which most humans experience the world. But much of the animal world perceives the world in radically different ways, like fish that see through electroreceptors scattered throughout their bodies or fire-hunting beetles that can sense heat nearly 100 miles away thanks to tiny sensors behind them. their middle legs. Science journalist Ed Yong gives us a glimpse of these wonders in his book “An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal The Hidden Realms Around Us.” He’s also a writer for The Atlantic, and he’s joining us now. Welcome.
ED YONG: Hello. Thank you for.
RASCOE: Under the concept of umwelt, which means environment in German, a large part of the book focuses on how animals see the world. I can say that before reading this book, I had never really thought about it.
YONG: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. Umwelt comes from the German word meaning environment, but it does not mean a creature’s physical environment. It means his sensory world, the unique blend of sights, sounds, textures and other stimuli to which he has access. So, for example, there are rattlesnakes that can detect infrared radiation emitted by warm-blooded animal prey. Dolphins and bats can hear much higher pitched sounds than our ears can detect, and they make those sounds to perceive the world in the bouncing echoes. Many creatures perceive the world differently than we do. If all these animals were in the same room as me now – if somehow I had a rattlesnake and a dolphin and a bat and everything else here – we’d be living in the same space physical, but we would all have a radically different experience of this shared reality.
RASCOE: What would your dog, umwelt, look like, you know, your sense of the world?
YONG: Lots of smell. When we walk down the street, there will always be times when my dog Typo will stop and explore a super interesting piece of sidewalk that seems completely indescribable to me. For him, it is full of interesting smells – dogs that have passed the streets before us. You know, he can sense, you know, people he knows turning corners before I can see them coming. And for him, these streets are constantly changing. They are full of new information, even if, to me, they seem constant and mundane.
RASCOE: I mean, that’s what I understood from reading the book. You write a lot about color. Can you talk a bit about that?
YONG: Yeah. So for us, a rainbow exists from red to purple. For some other animals it is even more limited. So for my dog Typo, it goes from yellow to blue with white and gray in between. If you can see ultraviolet, as bees can, the flowers look very different. A sunflower, rather than just being uniformly yellow, has a bright ultraviolet bubble in its center that attracts insects to it. Pisces – different species look the same, but some have UV marks on their faces that look like they have runny mascara. Birds see, you know, 100 times more colors, probably, than we can perceive.
RASCOE: You have a chapter on pain, and there’s still a lot of debate and research about whether certain animals or creatures can feel pain. Can you tell me more?
YONG: Questions of whether or not animals feel pain are, of course, of immense ethical importance. But the very nature of this question is limiting. It treats the answer as yes or no whereas as we know from other senses the animal world is incredibly varied and it is very likely that many other creatures from fish to shellfish can feel some kind of pain that is going to be different than what we are experiencing, but still exists.
So think of squid and octopus. They are two related creatures that both belong to the group of animals called cephalopods. But their experience of pain is very different. If you injure a squid on any part of its body, it probably doesn’t know exactly where the injury is. He has this hypersensitivity that affects his whole body, which is weird, right? It’s like–it’s like you stub your toe and all of a sudden your arm hurts or your head hurts. An octopus – it seems to have a more localized understanding of pain. If he bruises one of his arms, he will stroke and stroke it, much like I would stroke a burnt finger.
RASCOE: Do you think that should change, for example, human decisions?
YONG: Yeah, I think there are many areas, actually, where trying to understand the umwelt of other creatures and trying to think about their senses would lead us to make better decisions. We talked about dogs and their smell. So many dog owners spend a lot of time keeping their dogs away from things they sniff. Owners see walks as just a way to exercise, but walks are also a way to explore. And I think if you prevent dogs from using their primary sense, it affects their psychology. They become less happy, more anxious. The most dramatic example of this, where I talk about the problem of sensory pollution – we have flooded the world with light and sound. They can be very detrimental to many other animals. They can muffle the sounds they use to communicate. They can lure animals into traps, like, into – like, literally like moths to a flame. They can stalk migrating birds or, you know, distract swimming whales. We don’t usually think of these things as pollutants.
RASCOE: Was there anything you were really surprised to learn while researching this book? And did you have maybe a few favorites that you really enjoyed, like read more?
YONG: Oh, I have – I mean, I have so many and it’s really hard to choose between them. There is a whole chapter in the book on heat and the animal experience of heat. You know, I held (ph) to this hibernating ground squirrel that just doesn’t feel cold or hot in the–at the same temperatures that we feel cold or hot. You know, if I asked you, is it cold? The answer would obviously be yes. But actually the answer is, well, no for some animals because their senses have calibrated their experience of hot and cold at very different thresholds, which is why, you know, a camel can exist in a desert of cooking and being fine or a penguin can exist in the middle of Antarctica and be fine.
RASCOE: To me, it seems to be, in a way, very humiliating for humans. And is that ultimately what you want readers to take away from this book?
YONG: Yeah, it’s one of many things, but it’s definitely essential. It is very easy to be narcissistic about our place as a species on this planet. But I think the idea that even we only get a very thin slice of what the animal kingdom as a whole perceives is a blow to that ego. I think it shows us that we are just one of many equals in the natural world. But I also hope that the book will arouse curiosity to know more about these sensory worlds. I hope this will spark some empathy with our fellow human beings. You know, I think it’s a deep act of empathy to try to put yourself in the perspective of someone or something else with a radically different experience of the world than your own. And I think that’s a muscle we should try to build and flex more often.
RASCOE: Science journalist Ed Yong – his book “An Immense World” came out this week – thank you so much for joining us.
YONG: Thank you for inviting me.
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