Put Yourself in Their Ears: Consider the Sensory Worlds of Nonhuman Animals

It’s reasonably self-evident that nonhuman animals inhabit sensory worlds different from our own, human experiential landscapes. Indeed, a dog’s nose captures more than mine can, and blind bats communicate using echolocation. But how often do we really consider what those worlds might feel like? Experiencing Listen to the World (by The New York Times) encourages the imagination to begin to crack the door into those different worlds, and offers new pathways towards increasing empathy and understanding for other beings. 

In the Maromizaha Forest, Madagascar, monogamous Indri (the largest living lemurs) howl to one another. To my human ears, they remind me of trumpet horns, or perhaps the amplified sound of helium escaping the narrow lips of a balloon’s tight opening. The males and females sound different. The calls between new couples are at first disjointed but, as the bond grows, their sounds become more coordinated. Of course, one can parallel the level of communication in our human romantic relationships. Though at first uneven, we gradually come to know our partners, verbally and nonverbally, in deeper and more profound ways. To a lemur, those trumpet-like sounds must contain a level of richness and nuance I’ll never know. 

Bioacoustic scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution monitor soundscapes of the coral reefs in St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The sounds they gather provide insight into the health of the reefs. Listening to reef, one can hear the pervasive sizzling sound of snapping shrimp, even though they are invisible to the unaided eye. Fish sounds crop up here and there: lower-pitched “grunts” and “croaks” and “purrs” and “pulses” and “thumps,” as one scientist describes them. Broadly speaking, this field of study- soundscape ecology- explores the acoustic relationships between living organisms, human and nonhuman, and their environments. My main exposure to ocean life stems from video content, like nature documentaries. Stunning as underwater footage may be, it belies how little one really experiences that scene relying on vision alone.

As a New Yorker, I find the auditory worlds of rats to be particularly striking. New York is the city that never sleeps, perhaps in part because it’s always noisy. Car horns and subways and the indistinct murmurs of millions of individual humans fill my ears every day. But outside my human range of hearing lies a different stratosphere of sound, a world I cannot sense. In this “acoustic niche,” rats can hear each other speak. Ultrasonic microphones and computer manipulation offer us a glimpse of these conversational universes: endless chatter, rolling moans that sound like they came from misshapen flutes, and the chuckling sound of (actual) rat laughter. Waiting for the subway today, I watched a rat crawling along the track as a train approached. I braced myself for the F train’s unbearable screech, and couldn’t help wondering what the rat thought about that massive hunk of metal gliding towards them. Perhaps not much at all; they had better things to listen to. 

The cumulative effect of exploring these animals’ auditory lives, even briefly, humbles my human mind. All around us, there are worlds that we cannot sense, complete parallel realities. Every day, I rely on a balance of senses that serve me well, but my world is just a miniscule fraction of what’s out there. When considering nonhuman animal lives, it’s essential that we stretch our imaginations. Wondering what these animals experience is not only a fun and stimulating creative exercise, but also is a fundamental component of building empathy for other beings. They live in worlds at once totally different and completely the same as ours, and in that overlap lies a beautiful capacity for understanding, if only we’re willing to listen.

Cover Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash