top of page

An Immense World, Ed Yong

"We are closer than ever to understanding what it is like to be another animal, but we have made it harder than ever for other animals to be."


"The Umwelt concept can feel constrictive because it implies that every creature is trapped within the house of its senses. But to me, the idea is wonderfully expansive. It tells us that all is not as it seems and that everything we experience is but a filtered version of everything that we could experience. It reminds us that there is light in darkness, noise in silence, richeness in nothingness. It hints at flickers of the unfamilar in the familiar, of the extraordinary in the everyday, of magnificence in mundanity. It shows us that clipping a microphone onto a plant can be intrepid act of exploration. Stepping between Umwelten, or at least trying to, is like setting foot upon an alien planet. Uexküll even billed his work as a "travelogue.""

p. 14

"We should be skeptical of any claim that pits one animal's sense of smell against another's. I have repeatedly read that an elephant's sense of smell is five times more sensitive than a bloodhound's, but that's an utterly meaingless statement. Does that mean the elephant detects five times more chemicals? Does it sense certain chemicals at a fifth the concentration, or from five times the distnace? Does it remember smells for five times as long? Such comparisons will always be flawed because smell is diverse and often unquantifiable. We need to stop asking "How good is an animal's sense of smell?" Better questions would be "How important is smell to that animal?" and "What does it use its sense of smell for?""

p. 28

"Ants are perhaps the most dramatic example of the power of pheromones, but they're hardly the only ones. Female lobsters urinate into the faces of males to tempt them with a sex pheromone. Male mice produce a pheromone in their urine that makes females expecially attracted to other components in their odor; this substance is called darcin, after Pride and Prejudice's male hero. The early spider-orchid deceives male bees into carrying its pollen by mimicking their sexual pheromones. "We live, all the time, especially in nature, in great clouds of pheromones," E. O. Wilson once said. "They're coming out in spumes in millionths of a gram that can travel for maybe a kilometer." These tailored messages drive the entire animal kingdom, from the smallest of creatures to the very biggest."

p. 33

"Humans outshine almost every other animal at resolving detail. Our exceptionally sharp vision, Melin realized, gives us a rarefied view of a zebra's stripes. She and Caro calculated that on a bright day, people with excellent eyesight can distinguish the black-and-white bands from 200 yards away. Lions can only do so at 90 yards and hyenas at 50 yards. And those distances roughly halve at dawn and dusk, when these predators are more likely to hunt. Melin was right: The stripes can't possibly act as camouflage because predators can only make them out at close range, by which point they can almost certainly hear and smell the zebra. At most distances, the stripes would just fuse together into a uniform gray. To a hunting lion, a zebra mostly looks like a donkey."

p. 61

"To me, Sam's silence speaks volumes. He reminds us that seeing more colors isn't advantageous in and of itself. Colors are not inherently magical. They become magical when and if animals derive meaning from them. Some are special to us because, having inherited the ability to see them from our trichromatic ancestors, we imbued them with social significane. Conversely, there are colors that don't matter to us at all. There are colors we cannot even see."

p. 92

"I find these connections profound, in a way that makes me think differently about the act of sensing itself. Sensing can feel passive, as if eyes and other sense organs were intake valves through which animals absorb and receive the stimuli around them. But over time, the simple act of seeing recolors the world. Guided by evolution, eyes are living paintbrushes. Flowers, frogs, fish, feathers, and fruit all show that sight affects what is seen, and that much of what we find beautiful in nature has been shaped by the vision of our fellow animals. Beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder. It arises because of that eye."

p. 115

"People often assume that pain feels the same across the entire animal kingdom, but that is not true. Much like color, it is inherently subjective and surprisingly variable. Just as wavelengths of light aren't universally red of blue, and odors aren't universally fragrant or pungent, nothing is universally painful, not even chemicals in scorpion venom that specifically evovled to inflict pain. Pain, in warning animals of injury and danger, is crucial to their survival. And while all animals have things to be wary of, they differ in what they must avoid and what they must tolerate. That makes it notoriously tricky to tell what an animal might find painful, whether an animal is experiencing pain, or whether it even can."

p. 120

"But here's the truly important part: Watanabe found that a well-fed spider will also go after small flies if it is placed onto a tense web built by a hungry spider. The spider has effectively outsourced the decision about which prey to attack to its web. The choice depends not just on its neurons, hormones, or anything else inside its body, but also on something outside it--something it can create and djust. Even before vibrations are detected by its lyriform organs, the web determines which vibrations will arrive at the leg. The spider will eat wahtever it's aware of, and it sets the bounds of its awareness--the extent of its Umwelt--by spinning different kinds of webs. The web, then, is not just an extension of a spider's senses but an extension of its cognition. In a very real way, the spider thinks with its web, Tuning the silk is like tuning its own mind."

p. 208

"But many insects haven't exploited this evolutionary gimme. As far as anyone knows, mayflies and dragonflies don't have ears. The majority of beetles don't, either. Indeed, most insects seem to be deaf, and since they handily outnumber all other animal species, it follows that most animals might be deaf. This might seem odd, especially since sound seems so omnipresent to those of us who can hear. And yet millions of deaf people do just fine without it, and many animals don't bother with it at all. If you look at our fellow mammals and other vertebrates, you might be forgiven for thinking that hearing is invaluable. If you look at insects, you realize that it is decidedly optional."

p. 216

"Magnetoreception research has been pollued by fierce rivalries and confusing errors, and the sense itself is famously difficult both to study and to comprehend. There are open questions about all the senses, but at least with vision, smell, or even electroreception, researchers know roughly how they work and which sense organs are invovled. Neither is true for magnetoreception. It remains the sense that we know lesast about, even though its existence was confirmed decades ago."

p. 302

"Many of the other planetary changes we have wroght have natural conterparts: Modern climate change is unquestionably the result of human influence, but the planet's climate does change naturally over much slower timescales. Light at night, however, is a uniquely anthropogenic force. The daily and seasonal rhythms of bright and dark remained inviolate throughout all of evolutionary time--a 4 billion-year streak that began to falter in the nineteenth century. Astronomers and physicists were among the first to talk about light pollution, which dimmed their view of the stars. Biologists only started seriously paying attention in the 2000s, Longcore tells me. In part, that's because biologists are themselves diurnal. At night, while they sleep, the dramatic changes that occur round them go unstudied. But "the problem is right infront of you once you open your eyes to look for it," Longcore says."

p. 340

"I couldn't agree more. The majestry of nature is not restricted to canyons and mountains. It can be found in the wirlds of perception--the sensory spaces that lie outside our Umwelt and within those of other animals. To perceive the world through other senses is to find splendor in familiarity, and the sacred in the mundane. Wonders exist in a backyard garden, where bees take the measure of a flower's electric fields, leafhoppers send vibrational melodies through the stems of plants and birds bhold the hidden palettes of rurples and gruples. In writing this book, I have found the sblime while confined to my home by a pandemic, watching tetrachromatic starlings gathering in the trees outside and playing sniffing games with my dog, Typo. Wilderness is not distant. We are continually immerses in it. It is there for us to imagine, to savor, and to protect."

p. 353

"This ability to dip into ohter Umwelten is our greatest sensory skill. Think back to the hypothetical room that we envisioned at the start of this book, with the elephant, the rattlesnake, and all the rest. Among that imaginary menagerie, the human--Rebecca--lacked ultraviolet vision, magnetoreception, echolocation, and an infrared sense. But she was the only creature capable of knowing what the others were sensing and, perhaps, the only one who might care."

p. 354

Recent Posts

See All

Barbarian Days, William Finnegan

"I continued to doubt. But I was not afraid. I just didn't want this to end." "But surfing always had this horizon, this fear line, that made it different from other things, certainly from other sport

Emotions Revealed, Paul Ekman

"Emotions determine the quality of our lives" "Emotion is a process, a particular kind of automatic appraisal influenced by our evolutionary and personal past, in which we sense that something importa

bottom of page