What the platypus could tell us about climate change
In the lead-up to the UN Climate Change Conference, starting next Sunday, our screens have been replaying familiar imagery. Aerial shots reveal cities without end, industrial chimneys belching tar-black fumes and traffic-snarled junctions — all juxtaposed with views of pristine icescapes, rainforests exhaling mists and cobalt seas silver-swirled with fish.
The message is clear: the world we humans have built is at odds with the natural one. Our planet is at a tipping point, threatened not only by climate change but also by wanton destruction and depletion of its habitats and biodiversity. Its future rests on the shoulders of those global leaders convening in Glasgow. But what of those unrepresented masses with which we share the planet? What if the animals had a voice?
In his 1927 essay “Possible Worlds”, the scientist JBS Haldane declared: “My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose . . . I suspect that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of, or can be dreamed of, in any philosophy.” These words are often quoted with a glance to the stars. However, Haldane rooted them firmly to earth by focusing on the barnacle and asking: “How does the world appear to a being with different senses and instincts from our own?”
Imagine, then, that within the crowd of COP26 delegates there are some furred, finned or feathered; others bearing mandibles or tentacles: emissaries from the animal kingdom.
Of the animals at this conference, I have chosen four whose stories best answer Haldane’s question. They speak of the ways in which humanity’s conduct is slowly but surely erasing them from existence, through a pernicious interplay of climate change, deforestation, urbanisation and pollution.
They speak also of perceptual dimensions beyond our everyday experience, of worlds hiding in plain sight: ones as under threat as those within our sensory reach. So, let the conference begin.
Some years ago, a four-inch crustacean called Tyson made headline news after smashing through the glass wall of its aquarium at the Sea Life Centre in the British seaside town of Great Yarmouth. Research has proved that, corrected for body weight, the peacock mantis shrimp punch is the most powerful known, but a scientist at the University of Queensland’s Brain Institute argues that its sight is even more impressive. Professor Justin Marshall has uncovered 12 different types of colour-light sensor in the mantis shrimp eye; by contrast, we humans typically have only three.
As the calculus of colour perception is relatively straightforward, we can predict the rainbows seen by each species according to its colour-receptor count. Those with one type, such as seals and whales, see the world in 100 shades of grey, whereas those with two, meaning most other mammals from anteaters to zebras, see a reduced rainbow, though still in 100 to the power of two — 10,000 — colours. Our count of three affords us a perception of the world in at least a million separate subtle hues.
With four times as many types of colour sensor, the mantis shrimp could conceivably create a palette of 100 tones to the power of 12: one million million million million, or one septillion. To confound us further, Marshall has discovered that this eye contains eight other sensors tuned to a property of light called polarisation. These creatures remind us that the sun’s rays contain infinite information, much of which we cannot see.
One home of the peacock mantis shrimp is the Great Barrier Reef: the largest living structure on Earth, but also the poster child for climate change. A coral is a colony of many animal polyps living in symbiosis with algal cells, offering shelter in exchange for photosynthesised sugars. Sea temperatures rising over the past five years have caused the polyps to eject their colourful algal partners. Last year the reef suffered its most widespread coral bleaching, prompting scientists to warn of an extinction crisis. Our leaders face a simple but stark decision: to back fossil fuel or the Great Barrier Reef. Our shrimp delegate might note that Scott Morrison’s government has just approved its third new coal mine development in a month.
On the other side of the world is the Great Northern Forest. The great grey owl haunts these swaths of dense, dark conifers through Alaska, Canada and Russia. Despite a 5ft wingspan, its dusky, mottled plumage atomises its silhouette against the branches. On nights when snow blankets the landscape and deadens sound, it swoops on its quarry and barely breaks the silence.
Indeed, scientists are studying the fine structure of owl feathers in search of materials to reduce the noise pollution from aeroplanes or wind turbines and quieten our busy world. Neither seen nor heard, this bird also seems endowed with a supernatural sense; it can detect a mouse rustling under a mound of snow from some 30 metres away. Scientists have shown that owls can hear 20 decibels below our range: a whispered world to which we are deaf.
There is a facet of hearing that we often overlook. This sense does not simply gauge the qualities of sounds — their tone, timbre or volume — but also delineates space in unexpected ways. Scientists have shown that we all can hear silent objects through the sounds they reflect, including their size, shape and even the material from which they are made; that also as a species we held the record for locating sounds within a landscape, until the owl was tested.
The Great Northern Forest is our planet’s evergreen crown. It stores more carbon than the Amazon, indeed all the tropical forests together. Consequently, industrial logging in countries like Canada, which clear-cuts more than a million acres every year, exacerbates climate change. It threatens the great grey owl in other ways, too. Old large trees are places to roost, rest, look and listen out for voles. Dead or fallen trees provide nesting places for the owl and its prey. Each tree is linked underground by a complex but collaborative “wood wide web”.
Imagine a great grey questioning Justin Trudeau on the wisdom of his pledge to plant two billion saplings rather than halt the destruction of habitats that have taken hundreds of years to knit together into maturity.
The man-sized goliath catfish hunts in the Amazonian blackwaters, in tributaries soupy and thick with rotting leaves. Consequently, this leviathan relies on senses other than vision. “The catfish is the iconic animal with regards to taste, but it does not have a tongue as we know it,” explains Professor Jelle Atema, a biologist with an affinity for all creatures aquatic. “Whereas lobsters taste with their feet and sea robins taste with their fins, the catfish tastes with its entire body.” A smaller fish in the current ahead cannot but leak chemicals through its skin and gills. The catfish is able to taste these from some distance, at dilutions approaching olfactory thresholds, and in doing so blurs previously settled sensory boundaries. In essence, the goliath is an immense swimming tongue, covered tip to tail fin in hundreds of thousands of taste buds like those in our mouth, that works much like our nose.
The Amazon carries one-fifth of earth’s freshwater, more than any other river. Its inhabitants are under pressure from climate change wreaking havoc with the rains, from deforestation encouraging oxygen-hungry algal blooms, from man-made dams barring fish from breeding grounds, and now plastic pollution.
A recent study found plastics in 98 per cent of fish analysed in 12 Amazonian streams. A goliath catfish at my imaginary conference would break the story of a catastrophe unfolding in the world’s freshwaters. Preoccupied by biodiversity losses of land and sea, we have been blind to it happening twice as fast in our lakes and rivers.
The past year saw our world burn. Wildfires caused by extreme heat and drought raged in Greece, Turkey, Italy, Russia, the US and Canada. The year before, bushfires tore across eastern Australia, killing more than 1bn animals and scorching their homelands. Among the most tragic casualties was a creature unique to Australia. The duck-billed platypus is in rapid decline, having lost almost a quarter of its habitat in the past 30 years.
The platypus is nature’s chimera. It fuses the shovel-like snout and webbed feet of a duck with the sleek furred torso of a mammal and the venom glands of a reptile. Indeed, the first zoologist to see one — the assistant keeper at the British Museum, in 1799 — deemed it a hoax. Yet its most curious quirk is the sense that guides it underwater. With eyes, nostrils and ears sealed tight, it tracks its bill side to side over the stony riverbed like a treasure hunter with a metal detector, alert to its prey’s weak electric fields.
Like the platypus, we humans have light sensors in our eyes that register a slither of the electromagnetic spectrum and grant vision. Both its inner ear and ours bear fine hair cells that respond to sound waves for hearing. Both its nostrils and tongue, and ours, hide receptors to smell or taste chemical concoctions. Both its skin and ours hold touch sensors that feel the contours of the world or the warmth of another’s presence.
However, we do not possess the platypus’s electric sense. Electricity is in the world but, unless at amplitudes sufficient to activate our pain sensors, it remains beyond our sphere of sentience.
All the creatures we have met play the role of Haldane’s barnacle, but none more perfectly than the platypus. The mere existence of its electric sense shatters our human assumptions of reality and proves that our perception of the world is neither true nor complete. Before Copernicus, we cast our eyes to the heavens and mistakenly assumed that we were the centre, about which the sun and the other planets — indeed the entire universe — spun.
Today, we must again relinquish egocentrism and acknowledge that ours is but one of the many possible perceptual worlds at our feet. Haldane teased that, as a species, we are only a little freer than a barnacle: “I do not feel that any of us know enough about the possible kinds of being and thought, to make it worth while taking any of our metaphysical systems very much more seriously than those at which a thinking barnacle might arrive.”
He concluded that “Our only hope of understanding the universe is to look at it from as many different points of view as possible.” I would argue that our only hope of saving the planet is to listen to all its many voices.
Jackie Higgins is the author of ‘Sentient: What Animals Reveal About Our Senses’ (Picador)
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