Book Review: An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us

Guest book review by Gene Helfman.

Put simply, reading An Immense World will change how you perceive the world. It certainly has altered my perception. I have decades of experience conducting research on, and teaching about, animal behavior. I thought I had a fairly sophisticated understanding of the natural world. But organisms and environments I thought I understood, or to which I paid minimal attention, are now new sources of wonder. It is that sense of wonder that permeates this truly amazing volume.

Ed Yong, a staff writer for “The Atlantic,” won a Pulitzer prize in 2016 for I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us. In his latest, beautifully written, An Immense World, Yong moves outside and explores the sensory capabilities, or Umwelt, of a host of organisms, from the “simplest” to the “more complex.” Those adjectives are immediately failed descriptors because animals we often think of as simple turn out to have sensory capabilities we cannot even imagine. It is these capabilities as compared with those of human’s that underscore Yong’s exploration. Although we have adequate—for our needs—abilities to hear, see, smell, taste, and touch our surroundings, other organisms have detection capabilities “just so far beyond what we can comprehend” that we can only imagine how they do it (despite employing the most advanced technologies available to us).

Yong’s research is prodigious and thorough. As with other prominent science writers, Yong embeds himself in the labs, homes, study sites, and lives of dozens of researchers who have made amazing discoveries. By doing so, Yong joins a cohort that includes such renowned science journalists as Carl Safina and Susan Orlean, whose books, Becoming Wild and On Animals, I reviewed in previous EcoLit posts.

The examples of “how animals turn stimuli into information” are endless. A brief sampling:

Smell and Taste. Dogs (and elephants, moths, ants, turkey vultures, shearwaters, rattlesnakes, catfish) use olfaction the way we use vision. To deny a dog the opportunity to sniff is like blindfolding a person snorkeling over a coral reef. If urine-soaked soil from an individual elephant at the back of a herd is placed on the trail ahead of the group, the leaders become agitated, confused about how a family member “got teleported ahead.” Snakes, moths, ants, bees, wasps, mosquitoes, catfish and others smell and taste the world with ultra-sensitive receptors located on every part of their body. Etc.

Vision. “Colors” are our way of defining light wavelengths that we can detect with our two eyes. But many organisms see much weaker light and of much shorter (ultraviolet) wavelengths, using multiple pairs of eyes (eight in the case of jumping spiders, two hundred in scallops), again scattered around the body. Some snakes have eye-like structures at the tips of their tails, octopuses have them distributed along their tentacles (each arm with its own brain), some butterflies have them on their genitals. Birds can see more colors than we can. Many animals can see polarized light; we can’t. Many insects, birds, bats, rodents, fish, reindeer, dogs, cats, pigs and others can detect ultra-violet light; humans may be exceptional in our inability because UV light is filtered out by our lens (Impressionist Claude Monet lost his left lens at age 82 and began seeing UV wavelengths, after which he added blue-white color to water lilies he had previously painted white). Fire-chaser beetles detect infrared radiation from forest fires at great distances, guiding them to dying trees on which they will lay eggs. Etc.

Yong proceeds through the senses and the animal kingdom, every page filled with revelation, including the details of how these abilities were discovered and the science behind it. Some animals hear at frequencies we can’t detect; some detect surface vibrations via whiskers and antennae; bats and dolphins use echolocation. Touch and pressure sensors exist throughout the animal world, information that feeds into an excellent chapter on the related “unwanted” sense of pain and how its existence should be faced as “a morally, legally, and economically vital matter” in our interactions with other organisms. Other chapters explore electric field generation and detection (fish, amphibians, platypus, some dolphins, spiders, bees sensing electric fields around flowers), and the mysterious ability of animals to detect the earth’s geomagnetic field and use it to navigate (= “magnetoreception” in moths, whales, sea turtles, salmon, sharks, songbirds). These sections often end with statements of amazement by the experts, that they have only skimmed the surface of these phenomena, and that “we just don’t know how they do it.”

I grew uncomfortable toward the end because, having read more than 300 pages detailing the sensory lives of truly remarkable animals, I hadn’t encountered a take-home, environmental message. But Yong saved the best (or most painful) for last, when he drew together the various, seemingly disparate case histories to show how anthropogenic activities are disrupting the lives of so many non-human beings through sensory pollution. “We have filled the night with light, the silence with noise, and the soil and water with unfamiliar chemicals.” Almost seven million migrating birds die each year in the U.S. and Canada from flying into communication towers, their navigation abilities disabled by red lights. Hatchling turtles in Florida, evolved to move toward the lighter horizon over the ocean, die by the thousands as they rush across roadways and toward illuminated parking lots, sports stadiums, and beach fires. Urban and industrial noise changes the timing of bird choruses, suppresses the complexity of bird songs, and prevents some birds from finding mates. Road noise makes otherwise livable places unlivable, displacing animals from habitats where they do best. The noise from ocean-going ships causes humpback whales to stop singing, orcas and crabs to stop foraging, and right whales to become stressed. DMS, a natural chemical found in seaweeds that attracts seabirds to food concentrations, is a component of plastics, luring seabirds to the millions of pounds of nondegradable plastic we dump into the ocean. Etc.

Yong emphasizes efforts to reduce and eliminate the many sources of sensory pollution, but too much of humanity “accepts the abnormal as normal.” Although we can only imagine how other organisms see, taste, smell, touch, hear, and otherwise sense the world, we have a responsibility, as a self-anointed intelligent being, to keep the world livable for the amazing, wonderful organisms with which we share this planet.

Gene Helfman, PhD, is an animal behaviorist turned conservation biologist. His 2021 novel, Beyond the Human Realm, about love, loss, and redemption among killer whales, won two national awards for animal fiction. His most recent eco-fiction work, Fins, A Novel of Relentless Satire, is a shark-friendly humorous parody of the sharksploitation horror genre. It is due out summer 2023. 

An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us
By Ed Yong
Random House

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