The Senses Census

By Lenore Skenazy

November 30, 2017 4 min read

Birds do it; bees do it. But we don't.

See exceptionally well, that is. When bees look at a flower, they see it almost as a neon sign pointing, "This way to the nectar!" The petals that look so pretty to us are dark to a bee, while the nectar-and-pollen gathering spot at the center is blazingly bright, like a target. Finding food becomes easy.

Meantime, birds — well, eagles, anyway — can see mice and other prey from so far away they can swoop in for the kill before their dinner knows what hit it. Or bit it. Whatever.

We are surrounded by animals with far better senses of all sorts, from smell to taste to touch. Some can even see things invisible to humans. Snakes, for instance, see infrared waves radiating from animals and then slither over to swallow them. Yet we humans are no slouches ourselves when it comes to sensing the world, as I learned at a new American Museum of Natural History exhibition, "Our Senses: An Immersive Experience."

Even single-celled organisms — the kind that first existed 3.5 billion years ago — have a basic sense of touch, says Rob DeSalle, the exhibition's curator. Weirder still, they seem pre-wired for the senses that came along later, such as sight.

Wild animals hear sounds that we can't, including the calls of a fin whale and house mouse. More impressive/depressing is the fact that birds' and reptiles' hearing does not decline with age, because, unlike the case with humans, the little hairs in their ears regenerate, whereas ours die off, making it harder for some old people to hear high-pitched sounds.

To understand why different animals developed their senses differently, you have to think about evolution — species adapting to their environments. So bats have extraordinary hearing (and big ears) because they work in the dark. But seals and whales have a terrible sense of taste. All that they can sense is saltiness. (I sometimes feel the same.) Why can't seals or whales taste sweetness or bitterness? "Because they gulp their food," explains DeSalle. With so little to do, their taste buds actually devolved.

Though wild animals and humans can battle it out for who got the best overall deal on senses, in the end, we people pull way out in front.

That's because however well a snake sees or a bat hears, wild animals don't have technology on their side; we do. So even though it is impossible to be as eagle-eyed as an actual eagle, microscopes let us see even the details of a mosquito's foot. Satellites let us see the entire Earth. Slo-mo photography lets us watch what is too fast in real life to see — for example, what happens when a drop of water hits a puddle. Meantime, time-lapse photography shows us what's too slow for anyone to watch unfold — say the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly.

And don't forget that we are the only species to create things just to delight our senses. Symphonies. Paintings. Pepperoni pizza.

But perhaps most amazing of all is the fact that this exhibition is in a modern-day science museum, and it actually ends on a high note, celebrating mankind's inventiveness. So many exhibitions (and documentaries and magazine articles and nonprofit donation appeals) end with the exact opposite message: "Nature is great, but man has screwed it up forever. Thanks a lot, manglers."

"Our Senses: An Immersive Experience" ends with a cheer for humanity — how we've learned from nature and sometimes surpassed it.

Take that, snakes.

Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, founder of Free-Range Kids and author of "Has the World Gone Skenazy?" To learn more about Lenore Skenazy ([email protected]) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at

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