Animals have senses that give them an entirely different experience of this world. Some of them are basically superpowers. Here’s some of the weirdest ones that are almost impossible to imagine.
The Marvel superhero Daredevil is the story of a mild-mannered lawyer named Matt Murdoch who is blind, but can see through the power of echolocation.The Marvel superhero Daredevil is the story of a mild-mannered lawyer named Matt Murdoch who is blind, but can see through the power of echolocation.
I’m sorry, shouldn’t this be Batman’s thing?
Anyway, in the comics and TV shows it gives him a superhuman ability to perceive the world around him, to the point that he uses it to fight crime. And hook up with She-Hulk. Well done sir.
Well it might sound impossible to believe but this is an actual thing that some blind people can do.
Maybe not the fighting crime and She-Hulk stuff but the echolocation, yes.
One great example is Daniel Kish, who makes clicking sounds with his mouth or a cane and then can interpret the space around him.
He can even ride a bike and navigate through his neighborhood.
And this isn’t just a superhuman ability only he can do, he teaches this to blind children all over the world through the organization World Access for the Blind.
This is of course a method of seeing that many animal species use like the aforementioned bat.
Animals definitely have a different way of perceiving the world. And we’ve learned to use their abilities to heighten our own perception.
So let’s look at some of the weirdest animal senses that you just don’t have.
THE INVISIBLE WORLD
You know, sometimes I get why some people hate science. I get it. Because it’s constantly revealing things that we can’t see. And reminding us of how incredibly narrow our perception is.
From small things like bacteria and viruses and atoms to gigantic things like dark matter, distant galaxies, and your mom.
The fact is, we can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell only a fraction of the world around us. Visible light might be the most obvious answer, we know now that the light we can see is just a small piece of the electromagnetic spectrum.
But the narrowness of that spectrum gets more amazing the more you think about it because technically the size of the wavelengths range from infinitely small to infinitely huge.
And out of that infinity, the range of what we can see is only 320-nanometers wide.
Luckily we got this here gelatinous blob that can brainificate real good and we’ve been able to construct instruments that go beyond our sense of sight, as well as our other senses, to give us a more complete picture of the world.
Let’s start with one we’ve all probably heard of, echolocation.
Bats are famous for it, as well as dolphins and other toothed whales, who produce sounds to help them navigate.
And these sounds are loud. They have to travel long distances and carry enough energy to bounce back to the animal and still be heard.
Heard by a sense of hearing that is obviously very, very sensitive. So that raises a pretty interesting question – how can they create such loud sounds mere centimeters or even millimeters away from their sensitive ears without hurting them?
Well bats, it turns out actually have a mute button in their middle ear.
It’s a muscle that pushes against one of the inner ear bones to keep it from vibrating when it chirps. Thus protected, they’re able to pinpoint prey from a distance of up to 10 meters.
Sperm whales do the same thing but their echolocation range is closer to 500 meters.https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/10/131029101617.htm
Narwhals, which is basically a toothed whale with one really, really long tooth, can use vertical echolocation to find open water in regions that are 98% covered with ice.
This is important, since narwhals have to surface for air.
Echolocation can provide a kind of x-ray vision as well. Especially underwater.
As you’ve heard your whole life, we are 60-something percent water so if a dolphin’s echolocation signals are traveling through water, they can travel through you… sort-of.
Dolphins use this trick to hunt fish hiding in loose sand. But maybe the craziest thing about dolphins and their echolocation ability is it might… MIGHT… kinda make them telepathic.
There’s a longstanding theory that dolphins can recreate the images they “see” with echolocation using their own mouth clicks and pulses.
If that’s true, they might be able to transmit images to another dolphin. At this point, the theory is highly speculative, as it’s hard to brain-scan one dolphin, let alone two.
But they have been observed communicating with each other using the same vocalizations they echolocate with. So, maybe?
But seriously how cool is that? Instead of having to describe something you saw with words or trying to draw it, you could just blast sounds at someone and they’d just see it.
And who knows, maybe one day we’ll be able to brainificate a device that could decipher their clicks into a hologram that we could see.
That’d be cool.
#2 TREMOR SENSE
If echolocation is seeing with sound, Tremor Sense might be hearing with touch.
I’ve mentioned the ability of elephants to communicate with low-frequency vibrations before. The more high-brow listeners among you may recall my video about The Brown Note.
What I didn’t catch in my research back then is that elephants can hear these vibrations… through their feet.
As we all know, sound travels faster through solids than air, so while elephant calls can travel great distances over the air, they can travel even further and faster through the ground.
So elephants developed extremely sensitive feet that can hear through the ground.
Elephants have been seen striking poses that allow for better tactile listening. They’ll pause, sometimes raising a leg, or touching a toe to the ground.
This gives them a little extra time to prepare for a threat. For example, if they hear another elephant warn of a predator with their ears, they’ll just flee and get out of there.
But if the warning comes from the dirt, they’ll figure they’ve got time, and huddle close, instead.
The tremor sense works through clusters of specialized nerves around the feet. These are processed in the same parts of the brain that process touch. But some vibrations are also carried through the skeletal system to the inner ear, which processes it as sound.
This is kinda how bone-conducting headphones work. Except it’s conducting all the way from your feet.
There are some correlations that can be found in the brains of deaf and deaf-blind people.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1934619/
Deaf-blind people have the ability to “hear” finger movements because their brains have moved that processing into the auditory module of the brain.
And because you and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals, elephants also use this form of communication to find mates. Sort-of an underground tremor-based Tinder.
Trembler? That sounds like a serial killer dating app.
#3 HEAT SENSE
Next up is heat sense.
So obviously we can all sense heat, one of the first things a parent teaches a little kid is not to touch the hot stove. Or in my case, it’s a lesson you just learn on your own. Once.
Well the reason we can feel heat is because of the signals that travel through ion channels in our nerves. We have different channels for different sensations and one important heat-sensing channel is called TRPV1.
By the way, the reason we feel heat from spices like chili peppers is because the capsaicin in the peppers activates those same TRPV1 channels in our mouths.
And if you’ve ever wondered why mint feels cool, it’s because it activates a different channel called TRPM8. TRPM8, as you’ve might have guessed, detects cold. So there you go.
These ion channels do more than send temperature signals though, TRPV1 can affect the immune system.
In fact, some studies suggest that activating TRPV1 with capsaicin can prime the immune system to fight some cancers.
It’s complicated, and not all studies agree, but it hints at potential health benefits of spicy foods.
Anyway, when it comes to sensing heat, human TRPV1 channels have a threshold of 43 degrees Celsius, or 109 Fahrenheit.
That’s useful for preventing burns. But animals with a more precise heat sense find it even more useful.
Like vampire bats, for instance. They have extra sensitive TRPV1 receptors in their noses that activate at 30 degrees Celcius. This is cooler than the temperature of blood.
This allows them to literally see blood vessels through the skin.
It’s like a natural stud finder Or… blood finder?
Certain snakes also use heat-sensing to find food.
Vipers, pythons, and boas have pits in their faces equipped with ion channels to map thermal radiation, allowing them to basically see in the dark.
And their TRPV1 ion channels can detect temperatures of 28 Celsius and higher.https://www.nature.com/articles/news.2010.122https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2895451/
They basically have Predator vision. Which is appropriate, they are predators, but hey, now you know how to become invisible to a snake. Mud bath!
Now a really cool one, electrosensing.
Electric shocks are a nuisance to human beings. But some animals use electricity to “see” in ways we can’t. Sharks are a famous example.
In 1935, a scientist observed a shark reacting negatively to a rusty wire. The reaction happened even when the shark was blindfolded. Which, by the way, apparently you can blindfold a shark.
Anyway, a biologist and physicist named Adrianus Kalmijn worked out that sharks and other fish can sense electromagnetic fields.
This sense was eventually pinned down to organs in their snout called ampullae of Lorenzini.
These are basically pores filled with a sort of jelly. Nerves in the pores respond to changes in electrical potential, which helps them find prey in murky water.
The Olm salamander does this in a similar way. Olms are basically blind, so they may use electrosensing to locate obstacles in their environment.
Another animal that uses electrosensing is the duck-billed platypus, because of course it does, just throw that on the massive pile of weirdness around the platypus.
Finally, bees are thought to be able to sense the electrical fields of flowers.
Bees can tell real flowers from fakes by electrical charge. They can also make a flower more positively charged, which works as a sort of dinner bell to other bees.
happened and what it meant; this suggests the bee adds to the charge, and indicates bees are drawn to more positive charges
Bees by the way are the first animals scientists have observed using electrosense in dry air. All the other animals are underwater, or in areas of high humidity.
Some think this opens the door to other non-bee insects to have a similar sense, but research is ongoing.
#5 NATURAL COMPASSES
While we’re talking about bees, another cool thing they can do is they have a built-in natural compass.
Bees can orient themselves to the earth’s magnetic field thanks to granules of iron in their abdomens. This gives them the ability to accurately navigate up to 12 kilometers from the hive.
The blind salamander I mentioned earlier can also orient itself to earth’s magnetic field. Some bacteria can, too. And then there’s the birds.
Some bird species migrate thousands of miles every year. The bar-tailed godwit, for instance, covers 30,000 kilometers in a trip that takes it from Alaska to New Zealand and back. How do they navigate?
This… gets weird.
There are some studies that suggest they actually do it using quantum entanglement.
Okay so there’s a type of protein called cryptochrome is known to create pairs of entangled particles when it interacts with light.
Well, when they create these particles, the spin state of the pairs is affected by magnetic fields.https://www.chemistryworld.com/features/natures-navigation-system/6815.article
And they’ve found several types of cryptochrome in bird eyes. So in theory – IN THEORY – the Earth’s electromagnetic fields could impact the spin state of these entangled pairs and those changes could be detected by retinal nerves.
Which would allow the birds to effectively see the Earth’s magnetic fields.
I imagine it would be like seeing superhighways in the sky made up of auroras all the time.
What’s even crazier is that human eyes contain more than enough cryptochrome to make this happen.
What we lack is the neural hardware to interpret the magnetic effects. And possibly a chemical that activates the cryptochrome.
But it’s thought that birds do have that. This is a bit speculative but it’s an interesting answer to a big nature mystery.
#6 SMELLING DISEASE
Okay, so we know that dogs have a great sense of smell, but it turns out dogs can actually diagnose disease.
This is amazing.
Dogs have five times as many olfactory receptors as we do. And their brains have 40 times the smell-processing power.
Because of this, dogs can be trained to sniff out scent trails, bombs materials, and a bag of weed stuffed way down in your backpack.
…Or so I’m told.
Since 1989, doctors have been studying the ability of dogs to smell cancer. Dogs have been able to correctly detect skin, lung, and other cancers from urine samples. They can even smell cancer on a patient’s breath.
The rates of detection vary from study to study, but are routinely above the 50% you’d expect if it was random chance.
An August 2021 study reported lung cancer detection rates of 78% from breath and 87.8% from urine. When breath and urine samples were used together, the sniffer dogs had a 97.6% detection rate.
According to a research group working on this called In Situ, Training dogs to detect cancer is actually really complicated because the smells are made up of around 4000 volatile organic compounds, compared to one or two that a bomb-sniffing dog has to pick up.https://dogsdetectcancer.org/faq/
Studies are still ongoing, dogs aren’t used as diagnostic tools in hospitals just yet. CT scans are more accurate and… well there’s more money to be made with it.
In Situ recommends teams of five, highly-trained dogs to detect cancer. I’m not sure if hiring a whole team of highly trained dogs would cost less than a CT scan, but maybe…
I find this really interesting but I’m not sure how it would work in practice, I mean if you’re at the point that you’re worried you have cancer, you’re probably going to want a definite answer more than the word of a dog.
But, if we can isolate and detect some of the chemicals that the dogs are responding to, we might be able to include smell samples as part of regular physicals and increase the chance of catching diseases before the symptoms show up.
There’s actually a video on the way about that exact topic. That’s a thing that’s in the works and it’s incredibly cool.
So yeah, the fact that dogs can detect cancer is super interesting.
#7 SUPER TASTE
Last on our list, we come to the animal with the best sense of taste in the entire animal kingdom.
And the reason it has such an amazing sense of taste is because it basically tastes with its entire body.
The answer? The catfish. I honestly didn’t expect that one when I started this.
A catfish is basically a giant tongue with fins. Its body is covered with up to 175,000 chemoreceptors, which are basically taste buds.
For comparison, we humans have about 10,000 on our tongues.
What it doesn’t have all over its body are scales, which is kinda weird for a fish but the catfish is a weird animal.
The chemoreceptors are especially packed into those whiskers that gave it its name – those whiskers are technically called barbells by the way.
Which makes a lot less sense to me than “whiskers” but whatever.
It uses these barbells and the chemoreceptors all over its body to navigate and hunt down live prey in murky water where there’s not much light.
Catfish have a reputation as carrion eaters. But they actually mostly eat live prey, like insects and small fish.
And sometimes… maybe… Humans.
From 1998 to 2008, there were reports out of India about a man-eating catfish.
Legend has it the fish got a craving for human flesh after it ate remains from a seaside funeral pyre. But who knows, it may have just picked up the taste from someone who had waded through the water.
Either way, there were three known cases with eyewitnesses of people getting dragged into the water by a giant catfish and their remains were never found. That is a thing that happened.
Siri, cancel my noodling trip.
All this is cool, but what does that mean to us? How can we use these super senses to our advantage?
Well I talked about the cancer sniffing dogs, but there other things like scientists are using echolocation to find cracks in structural beams.
Finding hairline cracks in supports of an oil rig is especially challenging. Not only are the cracks underwater, they’re often buried in sand.
So using the example of the dolphin hunting fish buried in sand, they are using echolocation to find fractures they wouldn’t otherwise be able to see.
The elephant’s ability to hear tremors has possible applications to hearing aids.
Remember how the elephants hear partially by bone conduction? Modeling elephant ear bones could help improve the clarity of hearing aids that work in a similar way.
Finally, the tasting powers of catfish have been studied for their insight into animal behavior, especially regarding food.
Kinda sounds strange but studying catfish has led to a greater understanding of how different tastes encourage animals, and humans, to eat a healthy diet.
So in a way, we’re using animal supersenses to amplify our own senses, just like all the instruments we’ve created over the years.
I also love this story because it shows how you never know where a breakthrough could come from.
Like you always hear about these studies where people are trying to figure out if snails prefer mountain dew or sprite or something random and you’re always like, “why is this being studied?”
This is why. Because there’s something to learn in it and you never know what problem that thing could fix.
And I for one think that’s pretty cool.
Any I missed?