Expanding Our Umwelt: Understanding Animal Experiences

17:04 minutes

Two birds resting in a human hand.
The world of perception is unique to each organism. Credit: Shutterstock

Take a quick moment to think about your surroundings. Tune into your senses, and contemplate what’s happening around you. What do you see, hear, and smell? Now take a moment to imagine: What if you were a bat? How would you experience your environment differently? Maybe you could sense a nearby spider through echolocation, or feel minute changes in air pressure and temperature to know where to fly next. This world of perception is unique to each organism. It’s what scientists call umwelt, from the German word meaning “environment” or “surroundings,” and it is the subject of this month’s SciFri Book Club pick.

Science writer, author, and birder Ed Yong returns to talk about how senses both familiar and foreign to us help animals experience their environment, and to tell us what he’s learned in the past year since his book, An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal The Hidden Realms Around Us (now available in paperback), was published.

The SciFri Book Club read An Immense World together this January, and readers joined Yong and guest host Arielle Duhaime-Ross via a live Zoom Call-in for a conversation on how writing about animals changed his experience in nature, how educators can help students become better connected to the Earth, and how readers are still connecting with his work on the umwelten of the animal kingdom.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Ed Yong

Ed Yong is a science writer and author of An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal The Hidden Realms Around Us.

Segment Transcript

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: This is Science Friday. I’m Arielle Duhaime-Ross.

Take a quick moment to think about your surroundings, tune in to your senses, and contemplate what’s happening around you. What do you see, hear, smell?

Now, I want you to imagine, what if you were a bat? How would you experience the space around you differently? Maybe you could sense a spider through echolocation or feel minute changes in air pressure and temperature to know where to fly to next.

Back with us again to talk about how senses, both familiar and foreign to us, help animals experience their environment and to tell us what he’s learned in the past year since his book was published is my guest.

Ed Yong is a science writer and the author of An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us, out now in paperback, and January’s read for the SciFri Book Club. Ed, welcome to Science Friday.

ED YONG: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Thank you for being here. So in each chapter of An Immense World, you focus on a certain sensory system, like sight, smell, pain. You’ve gotten a lot of feedback, I would imagine, on your book since it was published. Is there a particular chapter that has resonated with readers and maybe changed how they understand non-human animals?

ED YONG: Ooh, so I think that the very first chapter on smell always particularly strikes a chord with people. And it was intended that way. We wanted to come out of the gate strong. And I think smell is very poignant for a few reasons.

Firstly, it starts with dogs. And for people who have dogs, like the two of us, it really changes the way you think about this creature that you spend most of your time with. We really wanted that. By “we,” I mean myself and my editor Hilary. We really wanted to take something that was very familiar and everyday and imbue it with this new sense of almost magical reality.

I think smell is also a sense that is familiar to many of us, but we don’t use it in the same way that other animals do. We use it in a more limited way. For us, smell is really about identification. Whereas, for other creatures, smell is so much more. For ants and elephants, smell is the centerpiece of their social lives. For birds like albatrosses, smell is a way of finding food in a landscape– the open ocean– that seems otherwise featureless. So smell is about navigation. It’s about communication.

And I think the chapter gets all of that across. It does all the things I really want from the book. It shows some really fascinating animals, some everyday animals, in a new light, and it shows you this sense that we think we understand, but facets and sides to it that are extraordinary and that we don’t really think about.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Nancy has a question about the many, many people you interviewed to make this book possible. Go ahead, Nancy. Welcome to Science Friday.

NANCY: Hello. I was very interested in the scientists that you worked with. And I was wondering if there were any similar categories or characteristics of them that you could identify. They seemed pretty isolated to me and driven by things that I never would have thought necessary or important, and I was very happy to read about them.

ED YONG: Certainly, not isolated. It is in the nature of a book like this, where we introduce people one at a time. And I can see why you might think that. The other piece of it, driven, yes, very much so. And I think also very thoughtful and just generally delightful to talk to.

I’ve reported on a wide variety of scientific disciplines over my career. And I can tell you that some of them have people who are more pleasant to be around than others. And this was certainly one of them.

And I’ve wondered about why that is. And I think there’s a few reasons. You’ve said, Nancy, quite rightly, that a lot of these people care about things that I wouldn’t say that most people don’t care about, but certainly they care about animals for their own sake. Maybe in their grants they put something about it in the applications for humanity and so on, but they’re in it for the curiosity. And they’re in it because they care about the creatures.

And I think that line of curiosity-driven research, especially driven by curiosity about the natural world, attracts a certain kind of person. It attracts people who have that kind of joyous, almost childlike, quality to the way they look at the world.

And I think that An Immense World is a book that at its core is about empathy. And I think that this entire field is at its core about empathy. It’s about trying to put yourself inside the perspectives of creatures that are very different to you and think about what their lives are like. I think it’s hard to succeed without doing that.

And maybe that side of it is not in the scientific literature that’s part of the field, but I guarantee you that every person I’ve interviewed– almost everyone– has thought about these questions. What is it like to be an electric fish? What is it like to be a bat? What is it like to be an elephant? They have spent serious time thinking about it.

And I think that attracts a certain type of person, someone who’s quite empathetic, someone who’s interested in other perspectives. And those qualities together– the sort of joyful curiosity and the empathy– I think explain why I certainly had so much fun talking to the scientists that I did for this book.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Staying on the topic of the scientists and the research for a minute, I’ve been itching to ask you about the chapter on magnetic fields. I was really struck by the fact that this is the sense that scientists know the least about. Can you talk me through some of the difficulties tied to researching how animals sense our planet’s magnetic field?

ED YONG: Yeah, absolutely. This was probably the most recent sense to be discovered. It was in the ’50s or ’60s when people realized that songbirds, even without any other kinds of landmarks, could head in the right direction when it came time to migrate. And we now know that many animals can do this. Sea turtles can do it. A lot of creatures seem to have this magnetic sense.

But magneto-reception, the ability to sense the Earth’s magnetic field, is the only sense for which we don’t know the sense organ, the receptor, the cell that picks up the magnetic field, or really how any of that works.


ED YONG: Right. We just know it happens. We know animals can do it, but the hows and whats and wherefores, most of that is still mysterious. There are some really strong hypotheses. And I’m pretty sure one or more of these is going to be right. So it’s not like we know nothing, but there are still big question marks. So anyone who tells you that we’ve solved the puzzle is lying.

Now, the reason why it’s really hard– there’s a bunch of different reasons. Some of them have to do with magnetic fields themselves, which are just a very different kind of stimulus than light or sound or smells. Magnetic fields, notably, are not impeded or reduced by living matter. So they pass through flesh. They’re not blocked by bone or by skin.

So while for a lot of other senses, you need the sense organs to be on the surface of the body and you need some kind of hole in a skeleton or an exoskeleton to house those organs, with magnetic fields, you don’t. The center could be anywhere. So there’s no obvious anatomical clue. There’s no paw or hole or opening that might let you think, hey, that’s where a sense organ might be.

Then there’s the fact that because we do not sense magnetic fields, it is a really difficult stimulus to study in experiments. If I wanted to test the vision of an animal, I could show them different sights, different colors, different wavelengths of light, and see how they responded. It’s a little harder to do that with magnetic fields, or to produce artificial magnetic fields. And crucially, it’s really hard to then know if you’ve done it right.

If I do a vision experiment and I’ve messed up the equipment and flashing lights are blaring all the time or it’s showing red instead of blue, I can see that. I know when I’ve screwed up. You don’t know that with magnetic fields. So just doing the work is extremely hard.

And then the stimulus is noisy. Magnetic fields are very, very weak. Which means you’re not going to be able to sense them with any kind of precision even if you do. It’s likely that whatever magnetic sensor exists is taking readings over time and getting a kind of average. But that means that how do you do an experiment on that, over what time frame is the averaging happening? So for stimuli that are very weak, very noisy, it’s very hard.

And then the final reason is actually about, I think, the nature of science, how knowledge is constructed. Because this is so mysterious and because there’s so much at stake here– it’s the final frontier of sensory biology, it’s the last great unknown sense– there’s a huge amount of competition to try and find the magnetic sensing organ, the receptor, the mechanism, or all of that.

And people talk about how there’s a Nobel Prize at stake. I don’t think that’s true. But there’s certainly a lot of glory and renown for whoever nails down the answers to all of these questions.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: We have time for one last question from our audience. And Thomas has a question about how animals– how we as humans– might be able to be more sensitive to other animals’ umwelten. Go ahead, Thomas. Welcome to Science Friday.

THOMAS: Hi. Thanks so much. So first of all, I just wanted to say, as a teacher, I think historically there’s been this problem with talking about the environment, where we just dump all of the Earth’s woes on the students and then we act surprised that they get cynical or disinterested about helping the Earth. So I think your presentation of umwelten is just so perfect for teaching students how to love nature first, and then the “want” to be better just comes from within them. Which is awesome.

So in that spirit, what– and I know you mentioned some towards the end of the book, but they’re more like policy oriented– but what are some practical steps that we as individuals can take to shape our spaces to be more sensitive to other animals’ umwelten?

ED YONG: That’s a great question, Thomas. And thank you, as a teacher, for all the work that you do. None of us could do it without you.

I struggle with this a bit because I actually do really want to focus on the policy part of it. We don’t actually get out of any of these big challenges by just relying on individual people to turn off their equipment at night or just do any of the things that we’ve often been sold as the solutions to climate change or sensory pollution or whatever. No. This is stuff that requires big policy changes, regulation, and so on.

And I don’t want to move away from that because that actually is what we need to do. The individual piece of it can be important. But it does end up being a bit of a red herring in a way that actors, who really should be taking responsibility, end up shifting responsibility onto people. Like for each of us, the kinds of things that are generally good for nature, like plant native gardens for pollinators and turn your lights off at night, that kind of thing– be quiet when you go on a hike– but I think that telling people– getting people to love the natural world, it feels kind of hokey, but I think is actually the crucial first step for exactly the reasons you describe.

Telling people what is at stake and what the problems are has no impact if they don’t already care. And so An Immense World is about getting people to care. It’s about giving them a reason to care. And without beating them over the head with it and saying, you should care, it’s just saying, here is the world. And I think that, if you do that enough, the world is so beautiful and so immense and so wondrous that a lot of people can’t help but to care more than they already do.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: So your book was published more than a year ago. Looking back now at the person that you were when you published it, how have you changed since then? How has your perspective of the world and the animals we share it with changed?

ED YONG: Wow. That is a great question. So when I started writing An Immense World, I did not have a dog and in fact had never had a dog before. So now I do. And I think really having an animal in your life, sharing your home all the time, does change your relationship to the natural world. It helped that I think. I thought about all the stuff about smell that we’ve talked about before. I had my dog, Typo, and it helped me raise him in a very specific smell-oriented way. It helps me think about his world more.

And I am birding now. And I truly cannot overemphasize how much joy I have found through birding. I’ve written about the natural world for my entire career. I’ve been fascinated by animals for as long as I can remember. And it’s kind of weird to me and to everyone else who knows me in retrospect that I wasn’t a birder before. It’s made me think about the way we engage with nature.

I have a voluminous academic understanding of the animal kingdom. I could recite you fun animal facts and tell you interesting things about the animal world for a nigh infinite amount of time. But actually going out and birding gets me something very different. I understand the birds in my neighborhood. I understand their relationship to the seasons, to the times of day. I know when birds are more likely to be active. I know which species disappear in which seasons, which ones are most common in which parts of my county. I know how to find rare species. I know which the rarities are.

And I find myself paying attention to the weather a lot more, to the tides, to the passage of time over the day and over the year. And there’s something very grounding about all of that. I think, as science writers and science journalists, sometimes the knowledge we accumulate is bereft of that context. It just sort of floats out in the ether. It’s little stacks of trivia that sit in our head.

And what I gain from birding is a way of rooting all of that in the land around me.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: I really loved the idea that writing this book and then getting a dog like Typo and getting into birding has opened you up to being more present. It’s a beautiful, beautiful practice that you’re talking about. It’s really lovely to hear about.

ED YONG: Yeah. I think that’s exactly the right way of thinking about it. Just briefly, I’ve often described birding as being more meditative than actual meditation. And it does feel like that. There’s something about being very present, using multiple senses– certainly sight and hearing– and just focusing in on small parts of nature– looking down into that bush, gazing into those branches in a way that you normally don’t. And yeah, the kind and the degree of presentism that it encourages is really wonderful.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: That’s all the time we have for today. Thank you again for taking the time to come back to speak with us, Ed.

ED YONG: Thanks, Arielle. Good to see you. Take care.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Ed Yong is a science writer and the author of An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us, which is our January book choice for the SciFri Book Club.

And if you want to learn more about the SciFri Book Club and read along with us, you can find out more at sciencefriday.com/bookclub. Happy reading.

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