Sound Menagerie – other animals’ sound perception
Given the superlative range of human sound perception, and the wondrous ways we use our sense of hearing, one might assume that human sound perception represents the pinnacle of bio-acoustic adaptation in nature. But the success of our species is not in specialization; humans are generalists, and while we hear quite well, our hearing is by no way “the most,” the “best,” or the “finest” of all creatures – it is just very well adapted to our habitat and our perceptual priorities. The impressive quality of our gift has unfortunately set much of our scientific research up to compare other animals’ use of sound to our own. While this strategy has yielded some amazing information on animal bio-acoustics, we have by the limits of our own perception been hampered in understanding some of the finer points of how other animals use sound. This is particularly the case when those ways are alien to us.
Many of our studies of animal perception have been framed under broad assumption that animals mostly use sound for communication. This has established classifications of “sound specialists” and “sound generalists” depending on (among other characteristics) an animals’ ability to vocalize. This has given short shrift to animals that are finely adapted to hearing but who don’t happen to talk about it.
Unfortunately even when the animals can speak, we are unable to ask them simple questions and get straight-forward answers. As a result, studies of animal sound perceptions are necessarily full of speculative language and broad assumptions. This situation is aggravated by the anthropocentric perspectives we use when we set out to discover something about other animals’ behavior and characteristics. This isn’t really short sighted in light of the fact that most of our exploration into the animal world is driven by our desire to know ourselves, so framing our discoveries in human terms is accepted practice. But when we use this information, we must bear in mind the foundation of our assumptions along with meaning of the data. Because while it is likely that much of the groundwork has been laid for understanding the mechanisms of animal sound perception, we are still only scratching the surface as to the range of their sensitivities and even how any particular animal uses sound.