The animal kingdom is often portrayed as a simpler world, free from the complications of man. But, as scientists have learned time and time again, all is not as it seems. Animals are anything but simple and we have much to learn from them.
Perception is the ability to become aware of something using your senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch). Each species has their own unique senses and therefore their own perception of the world. Unique senses developed because all living organisms need information from their outside and inside worlds in order to survive. It is of little surprise that much of evolution’s effort was focused on the fine tuning of an organism’s sensory and nervous systems. This has led to profound diversity of senses within the animal kingdom. Each species has evolved unique adjustments to their ears, eyes, nose. Some have even developed different types of sense organs, providing information that is foreign to our human experience.
Evolution of Super-Senses
The Cambrian explosion occurred around 540 million years ago, an event that marks when complex life abundantly appeared. Since then, animals have evolved, shaped by the Earth’s natural cycles, their specific habitats, and the species around them. Birds adapted to survive cold weather by migrating South during winter, following food supplies. Red-eyed tree frogs adapted to live in a niche environment in the canopy of the rainforest. Bees and flowers depend on one another, bees use a flower’s nectar as a food source and flowers need bees to carry their pollen to create offspring with other plants. Adapting to nature has allowed the animal kingdom to spend energy wisely, reduce competition, and survive for millions of years. These examples are miraculous, but much is left to be discovered, and the clock is ticking for many species.
A Disappearing World
Humans have altered the world significantly from the one that animals co-evolved to inhabit. Because of this, scientists fear that our world is heading towards a mass extinction of life. The last mass extinctions occurred in the Cretaceous period, 65 million years ago, with about 75% of species, including dinosaurs, becoming extinct. Professor Chris D. Thomas from the University of York was one of the first scientists to estimate how climate change might endanger biodiversity on a global scale. His research, published in Nature, found that climate change could cause, species loss of 15-37% by 2050. These extinction rates do not include extinctions related to habitat loss.
Our generation of scientists will be one of the last to be able to study how some species naturally existed in the wild and to study species that may not survive in human modified landscapes. Every day we are losing invaluable knowledge about the makeup and complexity of our world. Now it is your turn to discover the animal other.
Click on a species to explore their world
Similar to the animal kingdom, humans also adapted and use our given organs (eyes, ears, nose, etc.) as a window to the world around us. Through the senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch, humans come to understand colors, sounds, textures, and much more about our world.
Philosophers have coined the term subjective consciousness as the power within us that gives meaning to sensory information. Despite mankind’s constant pondering over the meaning and origin of consciousness, subjective consciousness cannot yet be fully explained by the physical functions of the brain. Therefore, scientists studying animal cognition have developed a framework in order to study consciousness using observational methods.
Perception Test: Use your senses to perceive this image. Which square is brighter, A or B?
Surfaces A and B have the same luminance; they only appear different from one another because our brain perceives the cylinder’s shadow. This means our brain is reconstructing our world using prior knowledge. If you can accept that the squares are actually the same luminance, then you are self-aware of the inaccuracies of the processes behind your ability to perceive. Humans are capable of being aware of their own cognitive operations, this ability demonstrates the complexity of the human brain.
The question is, could this relative self-awareness be the defining trait of subjective consciousness? This is the question many psychologists are exploring in order to evaluate animal consciousness. Dr. Robert Lurz, professor of philosophy at Brooklyn College, recently conducted a study that explored the question of whether chimpanzees are aware of their minds and whether chimpanzees are aware that other minds (other chimpanzees, humans, etc.) are also able to perceive.
A study Lurz collaborated on, Smoke and Mirrors: Testing the scope of chimpanzees’ appearance-reality understanding, that was published in Cognition, looked at the scope and flexibility of chimpanzees’ appearance-reality discrimination ability. They presented the chimpanzees with a wide range of illusions, to see if chimpanzees were capable of appearance-reality discriminations. For example, they used a lens to change the apparent size of food items. If a chimpanzee made a choice based on real properties rather than their manipulated apparent properties, the chimpanzee would get a better food reward. The study found that chimpanzees were capable of making appearance-reality discriminations with a range of illusory stimuli.
By learning about animal senses, we can begin to picture a world outside our own human experience. The animal world may at first appear primitive, but as scientists learn more, they are frequently humbled by its complexity. Through air, water, soil, noise, thermal, and light pollution, humans are altering the world that life evolved to inhabit.
Species that survived millennia are not adapting well to human altered environments. As natural cycles are disrupted by climate change, as habitats are altered or destroyed, and as species that play a role in the dynamics of ecological communities are lost, species’ overall chances of survival decrease. The ability of our own species to adapt to these changes also remains unknown, as humans are dependent on nature’s biological resources and ecological services that species provide. Examples of these can be seen in how insects provide major economic benefits to the agricultural industry, as one-third of the world’s food production relies on insect pollination and how plants are the original source material for 40% of pharmaceuticals currently in use in the United States.
Lastly, human ingenuity is driven by discoveries of natural processes. This can be seen in the many inventions that mimic nature’s design. For example, researchers are developing ways that sight-impaired people can use tools that mimic a bat’s echolocation sense to help them see obstacles around them. The UltraCane is one of these inventions, a cane that helps sight-impaired people to navigate, detecting objects within two to four meters of the user by emitting ultrasonic waves. Also, seeing in infrared, like a snake, can help people detect and visualize heat. This is useful for fire fighters to see through smoke, police officers to locate subjects, and for power line technicians to spot overheating electrical connections. Nature’s design contains a wealth of information and the potential for discovery is invaluable.
Whether you believe the animal other has a right to exist because it has amazing super senses, or because each species may have a subjective consciousness like ourselves, or because the information and services they offer is important for our own survival, the animal kingdom must be considered by humans in our decision making. The world still supports nearly 60,000 known species of amphibians, birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles, as well as about 950,000 known species of insects, nearly 300,000 known species of plants, and the species that have yet to be discovered. Despite facing a trajectory of a human-caused mass extinction of life, there is still much to fight for and learn about the animal other.
How would the world be a different place, if we had the ability to see through an animal’s point of view?