Why does the giant squid have eyes as large as a football? Why do more than 350 species of fish produce their own electricity? Why do dogs become more optimistic after two weeks of plentiful sniffing?
The mysteries and miracles of animal senses are revealed in this year’s winner of the £25,000 Royal Society Trivedi science book prize, which was announced on Wednesday.
An Immense World by Ed Yong is an epic exploration of the unique “umwelt” of other creatures, from tree hoppers to singing frogs, who sense the world in vastly different ways to humans. It is also a plea for greater empathy with other species.
“Our greatest sensory gift is our ability to think about the sensory worlds of other animals,” says Yong, a British-American writer who won the Pulitzer prize in 2021 for his coverage of the Covid pandemic.
Praised by the chair of the 2023 judging panel Alain Goriely, professor of mathematical modelling at the University of Oxford, for “making the intricacies of animal perception both accessible and enthralling”, Yong begins his “triumph of scientific storytelling” with visits to the labs of sensory biologists around the world.
Their labours have opened up hidden worlds, revealing how animal senses are not simply superbly adapted to their environments but have sometimes themselves driven 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.
Yong has interviewed all kinds of scientists during his career writing for the Atlantic magazine but sensory biologists are his favourite.
“There’s a surprising number of sensory biologists who are themselves neuro-atypical – they have something like face blindness or colour blindness,” he says. “Their different than ‘normal’ way of experiencing the world themselves might help them better empathise with other creatures who have those experiences. The core of this book is curiosity and empathy, understanding and valuing animals for their own sake, and trying to put ourselves in the shoes of creatures who are very different to us.”
Yong’s research has shaped how he has raised his own pet corgi, Typo, particularly when he learned of a study which found dogs become more optimistic when they are given two weeks of sniffing tasks – they thrive when permitted to fully utilise their powerful sense of smell.
But An Immense World also reveals humans to possess more formidable senses than we realise. Our eyesight is good, although bettered by killer flies and birds of prey; our ability to detect sound sources is respectable too, although surpassed by owls and cats. We can also dramatically augment our senses too: Yong meets a blind American who navigates by “clicking”, using the echolocation we today associate with bats and dolphins.
Yong’s book carries an important message about how our lack of understanding of the sensory worlds of other animals is hugely destructive. The ubiquitous noise and light pollution of an anthropogenic planet is taking an increasing toll on animal populations.
Meanwhile, low-frequency noise in oceans has risen 32-fold since the second world war because of global shipping – damaging whales’ ability to communicate. Scientists have also demonstrated the negative impact of traffic noise on bats and birds.
“These are big societal problems and they demand big societal solutions,” says Yong. Nevertheless, he shows that much noise and light pollution can be ameliorated by simple, practical tweaks. Swapping LED lights from blue/white hues to red means they are less harmful to bats and insects. Reducing ship speeds by just 12% in the Mediterranean has been shown to halve engine noise in the sea.
“The wonderful thing about sensory pollution is that those solutions are possible and could be very effective very quickly,” says Yong. “Even if we stopped all greenhouse emissions tomorrow, climate change would still have a runaway momentum but noise and light pollution just goes away if you flick a switch or reduce the whirr of an engine.”
Better understanding how other animals perceive the world can address environmental ills too. Playing sounds of healthy reefs underwater has been shown to attract baby fish back to reefs deserted after episodes of coral bleaching. “Obviously to save coral reefs we have to stop climate change, we can’t just put a bunch of speakers around the Great Barrier Reef, but understanding the sensory lives of other creatures gives us options for better preserving the nature that we have,” says Yong.
Unfortunately, reducing noise and light pollution is nowhere near the political agenda.
“It’s understandable why it’s not on the political agenda because it’s not a visceral problem like a plastic-ridden beach or chemicals billowing from a smokestack,” says Yong. “Light and sound don’t engender the same kind of revulsion. Light especially feels like an entirely good thing – we want more light in our lives; light is knowledge, safety, beauty and goodness. So just raising awareness that these are problems that could be tackled is an important first step and one I hope An Immense World moves people further towards taking.”
• An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us by Ed Yong is published by Bodley Head (£10.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.