Having spent some time reflecting on the electroreceptors of the goblin shark I decided to read up on some of the rad senses of non-humans. Here are a few of the highlights.
Some sharks have a sense of smell so sensitive they can tell direction based on which nostril it hits first (analogous to our direction finding with ears). Someone once asked me if I think dogs smell in colour. Scientifically I don’t really get what this means but philosophically it seems like a great way to spend a walk through a forest and a terrible way to spend a trip on the subway.
Some snakes see in the infrared so they can hunt you at night. Bees can see in the ultraviolet. They can also detect and differentiate light polarizations. I think this means bees can watch 3D movies without the dorky glasses.
Echolocation is gnarly. Pretty much hearing plus plus. Have you ever looked at sonar imagery? Or an ultrasound? That shit is tough to figure out. Kudos to cetaceans and bats. I have no idea how an orca can echolocate the difference between a scuba diver and a harbour seal or sea lion. Pretty cool that they eat whales, sharks, birds, fish, squid, and seals but not humans. But captive orcas sometimes kill their trainers or feeders by dragging them to the bottom of the pool and holding them there. I take this to mean that orcas are capable of experiencing the emotion called “I’m pissed off that you keep me in a cage so let’s play a game called who-can-hold-their-breath-the-longest.” Then they echolocate the body and bring it to the surface for disposal. Also, they sometimes regurgitate fish to the tank surface to lure in seagulls and then eat the gulls. That isn’t echolocation but it is clever.
Many migratory creatures are capable of magnetoreception. Birds obviously. Bees again. Bees are rad. They communicate by dance. The direction of a food source is shared using a series of loops that correlate to the angle between the sun at the horizon, the hive, and the food source. They use wiggles and bum shakes to convey distance. This got mostly figured out in the sixties. In the nineties the mathematician daughter of a beekeeper figured out the geometric equations. It involves projecting objects from a six dimensional flag manifold down to two dimensions (whatever that means). Adjusting for local fluctuations in the earth’s magnetic field and the sensitivity of a bee species’ magnetoreceptors it is possible to predict the dance for a food source. Apparently cows can do magnetoreception too but with less bum dancing, they just stare north and south a lot. Fruit flies are on the list. Magnetoreception is powered by a protein called cryptochrome. Cryptochromes are also used to detect light. Maybe that isn’t too surprising given that light is electromagnetic radiation. Humans have cryptochromes but apparently those ones aren’t wired for magnetoreception. If you transplant them into fruit flies though, the fruit flies will use them just fine.
Sharks aren’t the only beasts with electroreceptors. Dolphins rock at it and are one of the only mammals with this power. They will sense the electric fields coming from submerged beasts on the ocean floor. Then they will scrounge and eat. Also: monotremes. Equidnas can do it. Knuckles is probably the most famous echidna. He is famous for being a foe and then friend to Sonic The Hedge Hog, not for electrolocating stuff. Echidnas aren’t related to hedge hogs even though they have spineties that look similar. Echidnas lay eggs because they are monotremes. Everyone knows about the other monotreme. The platypus is way better at electroreception than echidnas are. They close their eyes when diving underwater and root around in the mud with their duck-bill. Except the duck-bill detects the electric fields of mud critters and then eats them. Also it has a venom claw on its back feet. A venom clawed, electrosensing, egg laying mammal. Wowza. Probably a hoax.