Books

Book Review: ‘An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us’

BY Anita L. Sherman TIMEMarch 21, 2023 PRINT

Life teems all around us, from annoying mosquito stings to the soothing sounds of songbirds to the wet nose of your family dog. As most of us gaze out on the world, we see, hear, smell, touch, taste, and sense a whole variety of stimuli.

Oftentimes, we may assume that the creatures we inhabit the world with experience it in similar ways.

Pulitzer prize-winning science writer Ed Yong is about to change all that in his latest narrative, “An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us.

Relying heavily on the work of Baltic German biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864–1944) who worked in the fields of muscular physiology and animal behavior studies and coined the term “umwelt,” meaning environment or surroundings, Yong takes readers on a deep dive exploring the worlds of a variety of creatures.

Ed Yong
German biologist Jakob von Uexküll coined the term “umwelt” (environment). (Public Domain)

He does so with prose that, while informative and scientific in nature, creates worlds of wonder that I suspect most of us have never thought about or knew existed. The biosphere’s sensorium offers expansive opportunities to learn about communication and signification in the human and non-human animal.

Tantalizing Tome

Too heavy for a weekend read? Perhaps. But Yong’s passion for enhancing our understanding and appreciation for the myriad of life that we share our planet with is compelling.

Ed Yong
Philippine tarsier is named for its elongated “tarsus” or ankle bone. (Public Domain)

His book has been described as stepping into “Alice in Wonderland,” and it certainly has its magical and amazing aspects thoroughly enhanced by color photographs of the many, often bizarre, species introduced, like the peacock mantis shrimp or the elephant hawkmoth.

Before getting into a new book, I often find it interesting to see who the author has dedicated the book to. In this case, it sets the stage for a theme that runs throughout: “For Liz Neeley, who sees me.” Liz Neeley is the author’s wife who lives with him in Washington.

In each chapter—whether it is focused on smells and tastes, light, color, pain, sound, heat or electric fields, as examples—Yong puts readers into the psyches of each creature. Briefly, he gives readers an opportunity to possess other eyes. The voyage is amazing.

“Seeing” goes beyond the visual capacity of our eyes to a deeper and broader place of understanding. The full notion of “umwelt” expands the definition to include not just surroundings or environment. It’s the part of those surroundings that an animal can sense and experience: its perceptual world.

Yong asks readers early on to imagine a room whose inhabitants are an elephant, one bat, one bumblebee, one robin, a spider, a mosquito, one rattlesnake, one owl, one mouse, a potted sunflower, and one young girl.

They are all sharing the same space but experiencing it in wild and marvelous ways. As Yong writes:

“Earth teems with sights and textures, sounds and vibrations, smells and tastes, electric and magnetic fields. But every animal can only tap into a small fraction of reality’s fullness. Each is enclosed within its own unique sensory bubble, perceiving but a tiny sliver of an immense world.”

Parallel Perspectives

One of my grown sons has an inordinate fear of spiders. They are just too sneaky for him to encounter and too quick. In addition to their many legs, I learned that they also have eight eyes; two larger ones in the front, two in the back, and two on either side of their head. And, all of these eyes can operate independently of each other, thus giving the spider quite a range. Their front eyes see shapes and colors while the smaller ones allow them to detect motion. They are good night hunters.

Ed Yong
Treehoppers can camouflage themselves to appear as thorns. (Public Domain)

I was totally unfamiliar with the peacock mantis shrimp, which  some aquarium enthusiasts apparently enjoy keeping. They are bizarrely colored, like they have been dipped in psychedelic paint. One of the largest and most vibrant species of shrimp, it packs a potent punch as its powerful claws smash other crustaceans with the force of a gunshot. Its protruding eyes can monitor the surroundings in different directions and can perceive infrared and ultraviolet light.

Scientists have learned that they can communicate with their shrimp colleagues and use their striking colors to warn potential enemies to stay away. They also live a relatively long time. They are fascinating.

Not all of the creatures he discusses are tiny or live in warm waters. Learning more about dogs and their heightened olfactory senses may prompt you to let your pooch take a longer time sniffing out their environment when you are out for a walk.

If you find these descriptions illuminating, as I did, and they pique your curiosity, you will enjoy this read and all that Yong has to say and offer about the expansive world we live in and how “seeing” through different lenses gives us a brilliant and inviting perspective.

You may not see the world in the same way again, and how eye-opening is that?

Ed Yong
“An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us” by Ed Yong lets us see the world with different eyes. (Random House)

‘An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us’
By Ed Yong
Random House, June 21, 2022
Hardcover: 464 pages

Anita L. Sherman is an award-winning journalist who has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for local papers and regional publications in Virginia. She now works as a freelance writer and is working on her first novel. She is the mother of three grown children and grandmother to four, and she resides in Warrenton, Va. She can be reached at anitajustwrite@gmail.com
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