Animal Perception

Apparently many animals are scared of power lines because of how they flash like fireworks. Caribou keep miles away, which is a problem for the whole migratory thing. What? Never noticed the power-line fireworks display? It happens to be in the ultraviolet spectrum, which most animals besides apes see just fine. It is an interesting thought–most animals can tell if the power lines are live just by looking at them.

But just as interesting is that animal behavior with fairly obvious causes could remain a complete mystery to us, because we don’t look at the world through their eyes. Now this is kind of hard to do, but we could do a much better job with a little imagination. We know a lot about what color spectrums are visible to different creatures and what pitches they can hear. We know about echolocation, Jacobson’s organ, motion-sensing freckles on alligators and electrical sensitivity in fishes–all sensory fields foreign to most of us.

When we ask if an animal is camouflage or aposomatic, we need to ask for whom. I suspect that while the coral snake is aposomatically colored for bird predators, with their broad range of color vision, and humans, it is fairly well camouflaged for any predators that are red-green colorblind. And who knows what may have bright warning colors in the UV spectrum but look perfectly drab to us humans.

Understanding animal behavior and our influence on it will require us to put more effort into understanding the other ways of perceiving the world.

Maybe one of you can write a Google Glass app for ecologists, with settings to render visible the appropriate spectrums for different animals.

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About dghenderson

David Henderson teaches environmental ethics in the Philosophy and Religion Department at Western Carolina University. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy and and M.S. in wildlife and fisheries sciences from Texas A&M University.

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