Question: What color is a yellow daisy? If this seems like a trick question, it is — but not the way you might initially think. The answer: It depends what species you are.
Most of us recognize that human senses are pathetically weak compared to those of other animals. For example, we don’t have the amazing sense of smell that dogs do. Although, even a bloodhound’s sniffer can’t compare to a male polyphemus moth, who tracks down his mate’s scent trail from up to 7 miles away.
It’s not just scent that we’re oblivious to. Our eyes can see only in a relatively narrow range, the so-called visible spectrum. But for many animals, there’s a lot more. If you had the visual range of a butterfly, you could see colors in the ultraviolet frequencies — colors no human has ever been able to see before. Other pollinating insects can see in UV too, as can certain birds and some fish species.
They’re colors we can’t even comprehend, because our brains are restricted to the colors we can see (good ol’ Roy. G. Biv, if you remember sixth-grade Earth Science). Look it up online, and you’ll find photos of those “yellow” daisies in white and red, or with black patterns. These are supposed to be the colors in ultraviolet — but those colors don’t exist in the UV spectrum. What UV-sensitive eyes see, we can’t even make a guess.
The ability to see in UV is more than a party trick. Flowers use UV pigments to bring in the pollinators. If you’ve ever looked at a small white flower and thought it was boring, it’s not if you have UV vision. In UV, flowers are neon signs that draw in the bees and butterflies.
Fish and birds often have UV patterns as well, which can be used to indicate a readiness to breed, a difference in gender (yes, sometimes that’s how the boys and girls can tell one another apart from a distance), or even flash a warning to others of the same species. It’s like being able to talk in sign language. Your predators don’t even know you’re sending a message to the others. Mother Nature is a clever girl.
Infrared is at the other end of the visible spectrum. While no animal has evolved to see IR with its eyes, all of them can sense it as heat. Many snakes, including rattlesnakes and pythons, take it much farther. They have heat-sensitive pits on their lips. These labial pits are really infrared detectors, and they allow the snake to “see” warm prey even in complete darkness. We’ve borrowed the technique for night vision, although our version requires an IR source beam. A copy is never quite as good as the original.
Light is simply an electromagnetic wave. Visible light occurs at a specific frequency we can detect. Most EM waves are too fast or too slow for us to pick up. Waves that are too fast to see start at ultraviolet and then move up into X-rays and gamma rays. Waves that are too slow start at infrared and then go down to microwaves and radio waves.
It’s very much like our hearing: There are many sounds too low or too high for us to hear. Most young humans have a hearing range of about 20 to 20,000 Hertz. Many people damage their hearing over the years, and older adults are usually missing some portion of the upper range (some of you more than others).
Sounds higher than we can hear (ultrasonic) and lower than we can hear (infrasonic) are nevertheless heard and utilized by many animals. Infrasonic sound is generally utilized by bigger creatures. Makes sense — big animal, big sound wave. Elephants can produce and hear sounds as low as 5 Hz, which they use to communicate with other elephants at least 4 and possibly up to 50 miles away. If you were really close, you wouldn’t hear it — but you might feel it in the same way that you can feel low bass from a really bumpin’ car stereo.
It’s believed that elephants detect such low sounds not only with their ears but through their feet. Elephants have a unique foot anatomy that includes a large fatty pad. This pad can transmit vibrations up through the legs. Sing it with me: The leg bone’s connected to the backbone, the backbone’s connected to the ear bone.
Whales also use infrasound to chat long-distance. However, we’ve been making a lot of noise in the ocean, and it’s been getting harder for whales to hear each other. The solution: Talk lower. Over the last two decades, researchers have noticed that blue whales are using lower frequencies. In a noisy environment, that makes sense: Low sound waves carry much better than high ones. Ever notice how some bass voices carry across a room, even at low volume? Same idea.
Animals using ultrasonic sound is something most people are familiar with — think of bats or dolphins and their echolocation abilities. Mice and moths also use ultrasound. In many cases, the predator-prey relationship is the driving factor. Rodents communicate in ultrasound, and the hearing range of rodent predators such as cats and foxes goes higher to accommodate better hunting. Bats use ultrasound to detect prey, so moths and beetles develop the ability to hear it and react.
Perhaps the best way for humans to develop these natural superpowers is for a new predator to come after us — one that can see in the dark, has an amazing sense of smell, and hears things we can’t. Actually, scratch that. Somebody already made that movie (and several progressively worse sequels). I suppose we’re better off just accepting our limitations and marveling at the world around us.
Capt. Josh Olive is a fifth-generation native Florida Cracker and a Florida Master Naturalist, and has been fascinated by all sorts of wild things and places since he was able to walk. If you have questions about living with wildlife, contact him at Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com or 941-276-9657. You can also follow him on Instagram @florida_is_wild.