According to Ed Yong, studying the secret lives of animals provides us with improved solutions for conserving the environment.
Why does the colossal squid possess eyes that are the size of a football? What is the reason behind over 350 types of fish generating their own electrical currents? What causes dogs to have a more hopeful outlook after two weeks of ample sniffing?
The Royal Society Trivedi science book prize, worth £25,000 and announced on Wednesday, uncovers the secrets and wonders of animal senses.
Ed Yong’s book, An Immense World, delves into the fascinating and distinctive “umwelt” of various creatures, such as tree hoppers and singing frogs, who perceive the world in ways that are vastly different from humans. The book also advocates for increased understanding and compassion towards other species.
Yong, an award-winning British-American writer who received the Pulitzer prize in 2021 for his reporting on the Covid pandemic, affirms that our most valuable sensory ability is our capacity to contemplate the sensory experiences of other creatures.
Renowned by the head of the 2023 evaluation committee, Alain Goriely, a professor specializing in mathematical modeling at the University of Oxford, for his ability to “simplify and captivate” the complexities of animal perception, Yong commences his “victory of scientific narration” by touring the research facilities of sensory biologists across the globe.
Their efforts have unveiled unknown realms, showing that animal senses are not just well-suited to their surroundings, but have also influenced evolution.
Primates’ ability to see red colours probably helped them find edible berries and tender rainforest leaves but later many great apes evolved patches of bare skin that flush red to send signals – usually sexual – to each other. Meanwhile, a giant squid’s eyes have evolved to be so large so they can detect one of their greatest foes, sperm whales, as they collide with jellyfish, which emit flashes of bioluminescence in the dark ocean.
During his time as a writer for the Atlantic magazine, Yong has conducted interviews with various types of scientists. However, his preferred group are sensory biologists.
According to the speaker, there are many sensory biologists who have conditions such as face blindness or color blindness. These unique experiences may actually aid in their ability to empathize with animals who have similar experiences. The main theme of the book is centered around curiosity and empathy, valuing animals for who they are and attempting to understand their perspective despite being vastly different from ourselves.
Yong’s investigation has influenced the way he cares for his own corgi, Typo. This was especially true when he discovered a study that revealed dogs tend to have a more positive outlook when given two weeks of sniffing tasks. They thrive when given the opportunity to fully utilize their strong sense of smell.
However, An Immense World also uncovers the fact that humans have even more impressive senses than we are aware of. While our eyesight is decent, it is surpassed by that of killer flies and birds of prey. Similarly, our ability to detect sound sources is respectable but falls short compared to owls and cats. It is worth noting that we also have the ability to significantly enhance our senses. Yong encounters a blind American who relies on “clicking” to navigate, utilizing echolocation similar to bats and dolphins.
Yong’s book conveys a crucial lesson about the harmful effects of our limited comprehension of other animals’ sensory experiences. The widespread presence of anthropogenic noise and light pollution is significantly impacting animal populations.
Research has demonstrated that LED lights have a significant negative impact on bats and insects. When exposed to intense lighting, flowers receive 62% less attention from pollinating insects.
In recent years, the level of low-frequency noise in the oceans has increased significantly due to global shipping. This has resulted in harm to whales’ communication abilities. Studies have also revealed the detrimental effects of traffic noise on bats and birds.
According to Yong, these issues are significant and require comprehensive solutions. However, he demonstrates that noise and light pollution can be improved by making small, practical adjustments. For example, changing LED lights from blue/white to red can reduce harm to bats and insects. Additionally, decreasing ship speeds by 12% in the Mediterranean has been proven to decrease engine noise by half in the sea.
According to Yong, the positive aspect of dealing with sensory pollution is that there are viable solutions that can be implemented quickly and have a significant impact. Unlike climate change, which would still continue even if all greenhouse gas emissions were halted immediately, sensory pollution can be eliminated simply by turning off a switch or reducing the noise of an engine.
Enhancing our knowledge of how different animals view their surroundings can also help tackle environmental issues. For instance, a study revealed that playing recordings of healthy reefs underwater can lure young fish back to reefs that have been abandoned due to coral bleaching. While it is clear that addressing climate change is necessary to save coral reefs, looking into the sensory abilities of other creatures can provide alternatives for better preserving our natural world. According to Yong, “We cannot simply place speakers around the Great Barrier Reef; however, understanding the sensory experiences of other species offers potential solutions for conservation.”
Regrettably, addressing noise and light pollution is not a priority on the political agenda.
Yong explains that the lack of attention towards the issue is understandable, as it does not elicit the same strong reaction as other environmental problems such as polluted beaches or toxic emissions. Light and sound pollution do not provoke the same disgust. In fact, light is generally seen as a positive thing, associated with knowledge, safety, beauty and goodness. Therefore, the first step in addressing these problems is to raise awareness and educate people about their significance, which is what Yong hopes to achieve with An Immense World.