Making sense of the senses

BY LENORE SKENAZY

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 them. Or bit them. Whatever.

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

Even single cell organisms — the kind that first existed three-and-a-half billion years ago — have a basic sense of touch, says Rob Desalle, the exhibit’s curator. Weirder still, they seemed pre-wired for the senses that would come along later, like sight.

Walk around the exhibit and you get to experience the way different animals sense (and fool) the world. For instance, three butterflies appear identical. Beautiful! But when you see them under ultraviolet light, two of them have shiny stripes that make them look completely different from the other one. In normal light, our eyes can’t tell the difference, but that’s the point: They all look alike — and disgustingly unpalatable — to the animals that would otherwise eat them. But the butterflies themselves need to know who to breed with. And to them, finding one of “their own kind” is obvious, thanks to their unique sense of sight.

In another room, the nose is front and center. Well, the nose is always front and center, but you get what I mean. For your sniffing pleasure, you are encouraged to smell scent after weird scent and determine whether you think it is one of the 600 chemicals that make up the smell of chocolate. Warning: One of them smells like a skunk. Could that stench be part of the “Chocolate 600?”

It is.

In another room, you can listen to the sounds animals hear that we can’t, including the calls of a fin whale and house mouse. You can also grow jealous of the birds and reptiles whose hearing does not decline with age, because, unlike humans, the little hairs in their ears regenerate, while 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 fly around in the dark. But seals and whales have a terrible sense of taste. All that they can sense is salt. (I sometimes feel the same.) Why can’t seals or whales taste sweet or bitter? “Because they gulp their food,” explains Desalle. With so little to do, their taste buds actually devolved.

While most of the exhibit is a yin-yang of animals versus humans, at the end, we people pull way out in front.

That’s because however well a snake sees, or bat hears, they don’t have technology on their side — and 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, like what happens when a drop of water hits a puddle, or the instant a water balloon bursts. Meantime, time-lapse photography shows us what’s too slow for anyone to watch unfold: The metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly. The video of this is amazing.

And don’t forget, we are the only species to create things just to delight our senses. Symphonies. Art. Birthday cake.

But perhaps most amazing of all is the fact that this exhibit is in a modern-day science museum, and it actually ends on a high note, celebrating mankind’s inventions. So many exhibits (and documentaries, and magazine articles) end with the exact opposite message: “Nature is great but man has screwed it up forever. Thanks a lot, manglers.”

The Senses exhibit ends with a cheer for humanity, learning from nature and sometimes surpassing it.

Take that, snakes.

Our Senses: An Immersive Experience through Jan. 6, 2018 at the American Museum of Natural History [Central Park West at 79th Street in Manhattan, (212) 769–5100, www.amnh.org] adults, $28; children 2–12, $16.50; seniors and students $22.50.

Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, founder of Free-Range Kids and author of “Has the World Gone Skenazy?”

Spread the word:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


nine + 6 =