Five animals that can sense things you can’t

Which mammal can detect a human pregnancy?

The more we learn about other species, the less impressive even our sharpest sensory powers become. Take sight: Pit vipers have infrared vision, bees can view ultraviolet light, and electric eels use their zaps to “see” through the murky waters of the Amazon. These ani­mals and others have evolved to experience aspects of the world that sit beyond the ­borders of our perception. And some of their super­powers would be downright awful if ported over to a human: Imagine having taste receptors all over your body, as is the case for a catfish. (Public restrooms? No, thank you.) Still, it’s easy to envy the fantastic abilities of some of these critters.

Vampire bat illustration
Vampire bat Thomas Wellmann

Vampire Bat

Blood Vision: These suckers can “see” blood thanks to heat-sensitive channels in their noses. Fat and juicy vessels emit warmth, and the flying mammals track those temperatures on food sources like tapirs, cattle, and chickens.

Size: 3 in. Location: The Americas Prey: Birds, mammals, livestock Nemesis: Getting stepped on

Heat Sensitivity Bat: 86°F Human: 109°F

Dolphin illustration
Dolphin Thomas Wellmann

Dolphin

Echo Utero: Soft materials like sand can’t hide a dolphin’s prey; their echolocation allows them to glimpse inside. This has led some scientists to speculate that the sea mammals might even be able to detect human pregnancies.

Size: 10-14 ft. Location: Middle latitudes around the world Effectiveness as ­pregnancy test: Debatable Nemesis: Sharks, orcas

Echolocation Range Dolphin: 300 ft. Bat: 33 ft.

Harbor seal illustration
Harbor seal Thomas Wellmann

Harbor Seal

Wired Whiskers: Seeing and hearing are no problem for seals, but they use another sense to catch dinner. Their 80 whiskers—attached to ­thousands of sensory receptors—can still detect the path of a fish minutes after it’s fled the scene.

Size: 5 ft. Location: Northern coastlines Fish-Tracking Range: 2 football fields Nemesis: Sharks, orcas, background noise

Nerve Endings Found in Each Whisker Harbor Seal: Up to 1,500 Cat: 200

Sheet web spider illustration
Sheet web spider Thomas Wellmann

Sheet Web Spider

Spidey Sense: Electric-field-detecting leg hairs cue these crawlers to go “ballooning” in favorable skies. When they sense a positive atmospheric charge, they release a strand of negatively charged silk, which helps them slip upward and catch a ride on the wind.

Size: <1 in. Location: Just about everywhere Alias: Aeroplankton Weakness: Landing in the ocean

Distance They Can Glide Sheet Web Spider: 1,000 mi. Flying Squirrel: 300 ft.

Elephant illustration
Elephant Thomas Wellmann

Elephant

iFoot: Pachyderm feet packed with vibration-sensing nerve endings can feel low-frequency trumpeting from up to 9 miles away. The animals can even tell who’s calling—and from where.

Size: 9-11 ft. tall Location: Africa and Asia Power Move: Pressing down to boost the size of their feet antennae Nemesis: Poachers, noise pollution

Lowest-Frequency Hearing Elephant: 14 Hz Human: 20 Hz


This story originally published in the Out There issue of Popular Science.