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Nature Notes: An Immense World

Expanding the Sensory World 

Many of us pick up a book to get thoroughly lost in it; to escape the grip of everyday life and get swept away into a different world far from our reality. But do you ever pick up a book that constantly creeps into your reality and gets an unyielding grip on you? Long after setting it down, back in your daily tasks, you find your mind slipping back between the pages, extending the author’s thoughts to mingle with your own. 

After recently finishing the book An Immense World by Ed Yong, my first thought was “Wow, I want to read that again.” Anyone will tell you I’m a nature super-fan, constantly finding amazement in the world surrounding me. After reading this book, those feelings have increased 10 fold - a feat I truly didn’t know was possible. 

Yong introduced me to the term umwelt (plural umwelten) - it is the perceptual world of an animal; the parts it can sense and experience. Aristotle wrote that humans have five senses to experience their environments. For most humans, our perceptual world is dominated by vision, arguably our most acute sense. We observe our surroundings with our eyes, navigate through the world using our sight, and increasingly rely on our vision as a form of communication: written text of all sorts, such as road signs, text messages, newspaper articles, books, and other written media, as well as an ever-expanding variety of social media.

Animal Perception 

Did you know elephants can create, detect, & respond to seismic (vibrational) cues?! How cool is that?

But every organism has a different umwelt, shaped by its unique senses and adaptations. Even animals that share our five senses experience the world completely differently: perhaps they see in UV, hear sounds beyond our hearing range, feel vibrations that do not even register for us, smell things from miles away or in details we can’t imagine, or gather crucial information about their surroundings through taste. In a way, we are biased by individual umwelt. “It is all that we know, and so we easily mistake it for all there is to know. This is an illusion, and one that every animal shares,” writes Yong. 

Yong’s book gives us a glimpse (see how visual language shows up in communication?) into the endless ways animals experience the world, an impressive feat for one book. It reignited a curiosity in me that is sometimes snuffed out by the rushed pace of society. My morning walks with my pup in the woods have been transformed. 

Reigniting Curiosity 

As we head off on the same path we walk daily, my dog immediately has his nose to the trail. Years ago I attended a seminar on conservation dogs and was wowed by the power and capability of the canine nose. I’ve known for years the cognitive importance of letting your dog take time to sniff on walks rather than yanking them along each time they stop. But now, I’m invested in the story he’s reading. I see each stop as a different bulletin board, conveying messages from animals who have passed before, shaping his understanding of his environment.  Which animals were here, how long ago, in which direction did they go, and are they still in the area? And on it goes.

Two trail camera pics - one of a bobcat pooping, one of 2 dogs
Solving the mystery on the trail cam!

I recently got to “see” into his world. We found a scat on the trail which my dog was incredibly interested in. He sniffed that thing for, what seemed to me, an uncomfortably long time. The scat was (fortunately) deposited right in front of my trail camera. I brought the memory card home, popped it into my computer, and went through all the photos. It took me an hour and 3 days of footage to see all the animals that my dog likely “saw” in one minute of sniffing: other dogs marking the scat, deer, opossums, and finally the bobcat that left it behind.  

On my way back up to the house, I heard sandhill cranes calling their incredibly loud bugle noise as they flew overhead. I saw the diminishing remains of the dark-eyed junco flock that had resided in my woods for winter but were already

heading north towards their breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle. While I previously would have

noted that spring migration is in full effect, I’m now lost in a whirlwind of curiosity about how birds' internal compasses work. I’m in awe at their ability to sense Earth’s magnetic fields and use them to navigate thousands of miles between destinations. I can hardly get to the next big town over without needing directions. 

I look down to the ground and notice remnants of earthworm tunnels and casting piles at the surface, not an uncommon sight. Instead of walking past as I usually do, I find myself stopping to conceptualize being an earthworm underground, sensing my environment in the complete darkness of the subterranean. It’s hard to even imagine. I wonder what brought the earthworm to the surface. Was it a mole-quake? Scientists have found that worms “listen” with their whole bodies and can easily detect the vibrations of a digging mole. This causes them to high-tail it to the surface, as moles don’t pursue prey above ground. Perhaps if you’re a fisherperson, you’ve taken advantage of this by “worm grunting” - mimicking these vibrations to bring worms to the surface to easily capture as bait. 

As I re-enter my yard, I think, it won’t be long before the mosquitoes return and use their multi-sensory systems to launch a full attack on my flesh. Between their ability to smell the carbon dioxide we release, hone in on the silhouette of our bodies, sense the heat we give off, and, when they land, have a reassuring taste of the salt and lipids of our skin, they’ve perfected their meal-finding ways. Before reading this book, it was easy to think of insects as relatively “simple” animals compared to the megafauna we’ve studied more in-depth. But now, I feel like they’re anything but. Insect fossil records extend back over 400 million years and some remain relatively “unchanged.” But are they? They’ve had 400 million years to fine-tune the stunning variety of ways they sense their environment, each perfectly adapted for their ecological role. 

Umwelten in the Every Day 

Back at my house, I look up at my favorite part of the house - the floor-to-ceiling windows in my living room that look out over the woods. I think of the moths and other insects that gather there in summer, attracted to the lights from inside. I think of the tree frogs, sticky toes and belly stuck to the glass, that gather there to eat the bugs. I’m left thinking about what was, for me, the most impactful part of the book. We are biased by our senses and our own umwelt, which is to the detriment of animals. “We harm animals by filling the world with stimuli that overwhelm or befuddle their senses, including coastal lights that lure newly hatched turtles away from the oceans, underwater noises that drown out the calls of whales, and glass panes that seem like bodies of water to bat sonar,” writes Yong. 

As we head into spring and summer - the busy time of the animal world - I vow to think about how other animals experience the world and how my actions impact them.  What can I do to share this space with all the umwelten of other animals more responsibly? How are my outdoor lights or light escaping through the window impacting the fireflies in my yard that use light to attract mates? Or derailing the journeys of moths on their way to reproduce? Are the sounds from my music escaping through the open window interfering with the summer serenade of birds, frogs, crickets, and others who rely on their hearing to find their partners or their young? Do all my windows have something that makes them more visible in the eyes of the birds to deter collisions? I can think of a few things I’m putting on my spring to-do list this season.

Check your local library for a copy of An Immense World by Ed Yong or if you'd like to purchase a copy, try buying used from a local store or online store like Thrift Books!


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