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As humans, we are used to experiencing the world in a certain way. It would be difficult to imagine anything else, but there are animals out there that see, hear, and smell things in a remarkably different manner to us.
Animals with Unique Sensory Systems: How They See, Smell & Hear the World Differently Than Humans
From UV vision and echolocation to the ability to be able to detect the earth’s magnetic forces, animals really do have some unique senses. Let’s discover some more about what makes them so clued up about the world around them.
1. Fire-Chasing Beetles
With a name like the fire-chasing beetle, it’ll come as no surprise that this animal’s special ability is to do with this element. That’s right, fire-chasing beetles, from the genus Melanophila, are actually able to detect fires from as far as 80 miles (129 km) away!
That’s because the small bugs have infrared heat sensors behind their front legs and they’ll actively go in search of fire; but why? Well, the remnants of a burned forest actually provide nutrition for the young of this species.
The sensors, known as heat eyes, are filled with as many as 70 little hairs called sensilla which, when exposed to heat, will deform and trigger a neural response. The problem is that these beetles don’t always reliably find a fire and are known to turn up wherever there is heat including on hot pipes and kilns.
When it comes to hunting, seals really did draw the short straw. For many species, finding food means moving through murky waters with incredibly low visibility. Now, these creatures do have specially adapted eyes that help them to see underwater. Their round lenses are very similar to those of fish and their eyes can open fully underwater.
However, in muddy waters, this isn’t of much use, so their good vision is supplemented by their whiskers which are incredibly sensitive and aid them in detecting prey. Seals’ whiskers have more than 1500 nerve endings and this allows them to detect even the smallest change in water flow or movement below the waves.
Moreover, the seal is able to move its whiskers independently of the rest of its face and they’ll only move when the seal wants them to. They won’t wave about under the water as the creature moves so they’re much more easily able to pick up on subtle movements. Couple this with their excellent hearing and it’ll come as no surprise that even blind wild seals have been seen to hunt effectively.
For example, did you know that butterflies are able to taste and smell using their feet? That’s because they have thousands of tiny receptors on the feet and these are also located on the antennae so they can smell using these too. But the antennae and feet usually work together.
When the butterfly is moving through the air, it uses its antennae to ‘sniff’ out flowers that contain nectar. Once the insect lands on the flower, its feet take over and the receptors here can determine whether it’s a suitable meal or whether it is dangerous and toxic.
Butterflies are also even able to see UV light which is another way that they can detect flowers. This is because, like a lot of insects, butterflies have a compound eye which functions in a totally different way to regular eyes, allowing the creature to see more intricate colors and better detect movement.
Snakes are among some of the best hunters on the planet, creeping up on their prey and striking without a moment’s notice. But they’d never be able to be such efficient hunters if it wasn’t for their amazing senses that allow them to see and smell the world around them.
For example, you’ll often see a snake sticking its forked tongue out of its mouth. That’s not just a way to look adorable; they’re actually smelling the air. While the tongue is out, it gathers organisms and scent particles from the air, and when the snake puts the tongue back into the mouth, there is a special sensory organ known as Jacobson’s organ that translates those smells for the snake.
What’s even more fascinating is that scientists have discovered that snakes have infrared vision. Many snakes are nocturnal and when hunting in the dark are still able to grab prey with extreme accuracy. This is because they are literally able to see heat. If that wasn’t enough, many nocturnal and crepuscular snakes also have vertical pupils which are thought to make objects appear sharper in the dark.
5. Mantis Shrimp
Mantis shrimp are beautiful, colorful crustaceans that also have amazingly colorful vision. Compared to the three color photoreceptors that humans have, mantis shrimp have 12 which means they see the world in a very different way to us.
Not only that but these animals, thought to have the most complex vision of any creature, are able to see polarized and UV light. Scientists even think they may be able to see cancer! They have two compound eyes that can move independently of one another and inside their brains, the configuration even allows them to store more visual information.
While we do know that mantis shrimp have amazing vision, scientists aren’t quite sure why this is, although many believe it’s to do with finding a mate.
Catfish have one of the most amazing abilities when it comes to senses in that they are able to taste their surroundings. Yes, you read that right! The reason for this is that a catfish’s taste buds aren’t just located inside the mouth like ours, they’re all over its body.
That said, while there are taste buds all over the catfish, the majority of them are concentrated on its barbels; otherwise known as its whiskers. There are more than 3000 species of catfish and they all possess this characteristic which allows them to find food even when the water is incredibly muddy and murky. Not only that but researchers noticed that catfish were even able to detect water pH changes using only their whiskers.
On top of that, some species of catfish, like the channel catfish, also have Weberian apparatus. This gives them an improved sense of hearing thanks to amplified sound waves.
There are more than 1400 species of bat around the world, and as many as 70% of these use something called echolocation. This is a form of natural sonar, and allows the bats to emit sounds that project back to them, giving them information on their surroundings, such as where an object is located.
One of the main benefits of this is the ability to effectively locate food, even in low light, since bats are nocturnal hunters. Some bats have nose leaves that allow them to send their echolocation sounds out in different directions. What’s more, their huge ears give them some of the best hearing in the animal kingdom.
As well as this, some species of bat, like the vampire bat, have infrared sensors. This is thanks to the trigeminal nerves in their nose leaves that help them to detect heat, and therefore prey.
8. Star-Nosed Mole
The star-nosed mole is an odd looking creature but there’s a reason for its peculiar shaped nose. This organ has more than 100,000 nerve endings giving the star-nosed mole the most effective sense of touch in the whole world.
Because these animals are blind, they use their super-sensitive noses to feel out the world and even use those 22 tentacles to grab their prey.
Interestingly, the way the nerve endings in the snout work is rather unique. The mole doesn’t have a lot of neurons that detect pain but has many that are sensitive to touch. Moreover, the appendages on the snout are covered in Eimer’s organs; small sensory domes that can even detect textures and small shapes.
Just like humans, the platypus has five senses. But then, it also has an electrifying sixth sense that it uses to hunt its prey. And that’s pretty handy since the platypus closes its ears, eyes, and nose when it dives under the water in search of food.
But it’s the animal’s bill that comes in handy here and it’s packed with nerve endings that allow the platypus to pick up on electrical fields that exude off its prey. What’s more, this super sensitive body part also lets the animal detect minor movements within the water so it really doesn’t need its eyesight when hunting.
It’s thought that the platypus detects movement in the water after it uses its electroreception. This allows it to first detect the presence of its prey and then how far away it is.
Pigeons are among some of the most remarkable birds in the world when it comes to getting from A to B. These astonishing animals can be placed far from their homes and still find their way back. So effective are they that racing enthusiasts are willing to pay millions of dollars for a single bird.
But how is it that pigeons are such good navigators? Well, it’s all down to magnetoreception, a sense that literally pulls them toward home. While many animals possess this ability, it’s thought that in pigeons, they detect the earth’s magnetic pull from the inner ear, meaning they can hear it.
This is a pretty recent discovery as, for many years, scientists believed that this ability came from receptors around the eyes and beak. In any case, it is possible for a pigeon to use this sense to navigate more than 7,000 miles (11,265 km)!
11. Blind Cave Fish
The blind cave fish, as you can probably guess from its name, doesn’t have very good vision. In fact, in most cases, this species no longer possesses eye structures after millions of years of evolving to live in darkness. What’s more, it’s thought that many species of cavefish are unable to hear, at least, not at a frequency that would allow them to detect the background noises of the caves in which they dwell.
So, how do they get around? Scientists now think that it has something to do with their bones which are known to change over the course of the fish’s life. As juveniles, their skulls are symmetrical but, as they get older, their bones fuse and give them a more uneven shape. While this might seem pointless, it’s actually believed that, because the fish typically lean left when swimming, this asymmetry allows them to navigate the walls of the cave.
Did you know that there are more than 2000 starfish species and, while their name might suggest otherwise, they’re not actually a type of fish. The correct term is sea star because they’re a species of marine invertebrate.
Now, onto their wonderful senses. Sea stars, while it may not appear like it, have eyes. These are located at the ends of their arms and, depending on the species, they can have up to 50 eyes! Their vision isn’t excellent, but then, in a lot of cases, it doesn’t need to be as many species live up to 4,920 feet (1,496 meters) below the surface. But even at those depths, where many animals lose their eyes, there are starfish that retain them.
If that wasn’t enough, some of these sea star species have been observed to be able to create their own light, which is pretty useful down at the bottom of the ocean where the sun doesn’t reach. What’s more, since their eyes contain hundreds of light receptors, they can see in their own light.
Elephants are the biggest land mammals, and they’re sadly now considered an endangered species, with only up to around 50,000 left in the wild. But they’re also truly remarkable, especially when it comes to their senses.
While elephants don’t have fantastic vision, their sense of hearing and smell more than makes up for this. For example, elephants are able to hear very low-frequency sounds including the ability to pick up on infrasonic sounds which are far below the average range of human hearing. They even emit these sounds themselves to communicate with other elephants and it’s thought that they can pick up on infrasonic sounds from as far away as 0.9 miles (1.5 km).
But it’s not always heard with the ears. In fact, research has shown that elephants detect many of their comrades’ sounds through their feet which spread through the ground as well as the air.
Even more amazing is their sense of smell and their ability to detect water from as far as 12 miles (19 km) away. This is thanks to a complex structure of olfactory bones in the nasal cavity that is packed with millions of receptors.
As far as marine creatures go, the octopus is one of the most intelligent. But these aren’t just smart animals; they’re well equipped for sensing the world around them too.
You may be familiar with the notion that octopuses are able to change the color of their skin in response to their environment. Well, while this has always fascinated humans, we’ve now discovered that their skin contains the same pigments that are sensitive to light found in eyes. Essentially, they’re able to see with their skin and respond to light.
If that wasn’t weird enough, we should also marvel at the fact that some of the octopus suckers contain cells that allow them to touch and taste at the same time. Just imagine being able to taste your food just by picking it up! Well, it’s not just a delicious benefit, it’s also one that could save the animal’s life since the octopus can determine if something is toxic before putting it into its body.
I truly believe that bees are some of the most fascinating creatures on our planet, and for many reasons. One of these reasons is their incredible ability to sense things, and that includes their heightened sense of smell, which is reported to be 50 times stronger than that of a dog!
Just like the butterflies, bees are blessed with sensilla, tiny hairs on their legs, antennae, and in their mouths that allow them to detect scents. But bees also use scent and pheromones to communicate things like an invasion on the hive and where food is, so having a good sense of smell is imperative to their survival.
What’s more, bees have amazing vision and have two different types of eyes; compound eyes and simple eyes. As a result of this complex vision structure, bees are able to detect ultraviolet light. Plus, if you’ve ever heard anyone telling you to hang a red hummingbird feeder to prevent bees from stealing the sugar syrup, that’s because bees cannot see red. While they can see polarized light, the sharpness of their vision may not be great as it’s thought their perception around the edges isn’t fantastic.
Scallops might not look as though they do much, but when you take a closer look, they’re extremely interesting. That said, you might not be able to look as closely at them as they can at you since these creatures possess 200 eyes!
Their eyes are located around the mantle, and the scallop uses them to pick up on light and dark as well as motion. In fact, they’re so good at detecting light that fishermen are now using disco lights to attract them into pots!
At the back of scallops’ eyes is a concave mirror-like structure that essentially causes the eyes to behave in the same way as a telescope. Light reflects off these mirrors and is sent to the retina.
There are more than 10,000 known species of birds around the world so the senses of each may differ slightly. However, most birds have the ability to see ultraviolet light and it’s thought that this trait has developed over the course of 14 evolutions. The reason they’re able to detect ultraviolet light is because of the fourth cone in their eyes that humans are lacking. Moreover, it’s thought that because of this extra cone, birds are able to see a much vaster array of colors.
What’s fascinating is that there is some suggestion that this trait of seeing UV light developed as a way of finding a mate in species where there is no obvious sexual dimorphism. However, in these species, the way that ultraviolet light bounces off the feathers could vary between genders.
Not only do birds have amazing vision but their sense of smell is pretty impressive as well. The thing is that, unless we’re talking about things like vultures, parrots, or kiwis that have very well-developed olfactory senses for hunting and foraging, birds don’t really need to rely on a sense of smell. For example, vultures have been recorded to find a carcass purely by its smell while some seabirds were able to detect the smell of fish oil in the sea. However, common garden songbirds only have 50 smell receptors because they just don’t need them for finding food.
Dolphins are pretty amazing creatures, and they’re so intelligent that humans have formed a very warm bond with them. On top of their intelligence, these marine mammals are also blessed with some pretty good senses.
It’s recently been discovered that the Guiana dolphin is able to sense electric fields in the water, likely a trait that allows it to hunt even when the water isn’t clear. Many other dolphin species use echolocation as a way of helping them to make out their surroundings in the water. As they emit sounds that travel through their melon, these are then resonated back through the dolphin’s jaw, past the inner ear, and eventually to the brain.
While most dolphin species only can detect salty tastes, there have been studies to show that the bottlenose dolphin may also be able to taste sweet, bitter, and sour flavors as well.
Earthworms might seem like very simple creatures but their senses allow them to navigate the world in much more complex ways than we might first think. Generally speaking, these creatures feed on rotting roots and leaves but in order to find them, they need to ‘sniff’ them out.
They do this using chemoreceptors which allow them to pick up on chemicals in the air and translate them into scents. They also use this trait when tasting their food.
While worms don’t have any eyes, it is believed that they are able to sense light because if they’re exposed to it for too long, it can dry them out. But it’s really their sense of touch that helps them the most and earthworms have thousands of nerve endings all over the body that allow them to pick up on vibrations in the ground.
20. Electric Eels
We’ve met animals that detect electric fields as a way of finding their prey, but what about an animal that actually creates that electric field and then uses it to hunt? Well, that’s exactly what the electric eel does, and it does it with great precision.
Electric eels typically live in murky waters where visibility is low, like the Amazon. They have very poor eyesight so would have a hard time tracking prey if they relied on vision alone. However, they have the power to produce their own electric charge.
Many people think that they only use this to stun their prey and yes, this is one of its uses. However, scientists have recently discovered that their electric charge also bounces back towards them after stunning their prey and they use this to track the victim.
Bears, regardless of their species, have an excellent sense of smell. It’s so powerful that scientists deem it to be 2100 times better than that of a human. It’s simple but this is down to the size of their nose, inside which is a nasal cavity 100 times bigger than our own. Inside this nasal cavity is a lining covered in special tissue that has thousands of sensory nerves. What’s more, the bulb that connects these nerves to the brain is more than five times the size of a human’s.
While it is widely accepted that bears have the best sense of smell in the animal kingdom, it’s not the easiest to measure. But determined as humans are, we’ll give it a good try. For example, scientists estimate that black bears can detect prey as far as 20 miles (32 km) away, while their Arctic cousins, the polar bears, might be able to smell their next meal from more than twice this distance.
Bears do have good vision and can see sharply, but this doesn’t come in all that handy since many species live in forests. Here, their sense of hearing is more important and it’s pretty impressive. It’s thought that they have a much greater range of hearing than humans and can hear in all directions. What’s more, their hearing is so important that their ears are one of the first body parts to reach full size.