Living on Earth: Field Note: Big dog, soft mouth

A giant petrel stares at the camera with steely eyes. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

Explorer-in-residence Mark Seth Lender reflects on how our limited perspective affects our perception of nature.

Where we look changes what we see. The action and apparent drama were in the foreground, the two giant petrels and their conflict, while in the background the crucial part of the story unfolded, the elephant seal and his wrath. But even if my attention had been focused in the right place, I could not have foreseen the sequential grasp-release-grasp-release that was the key to it all. And it happened very quickly. It was recorded in just 11 photographic frames, a period of 0.7857 seconds. Attention, complexity, anticipation and speed defined an event almost impossible for the naked human eye to record.

When it comes to observing and decoding wildlife behavior, we are always at a disadvantage. We can learn context in part because the differences between humans and animals are smaller than we think. Little or nothing in animal life would make sense to us if it didn’t. Although we sometimes have the same visual and auditory acuity, animals in the wild absorb much more of the scene than we do. What is worth recording for them is fuzzy and meaningless for us, the noise in the signal we are told to ignore. In cases where the animal’s sight and hearing are orders of magnitude greater than our own, even more so. Not to mention how thoroughly and well animals process what they observe.

Expanding our limited senses broadens perspective. Look at still images instead of the fleeting moment. It slows things down to a level of sharpness as great as that of our animal subjects. Overall, it allows us to ask questions that we would otherwise not be able to formulate. Here is a large and immensely powerful beast to indulge, with no apparent benefit and some personal risk. The giant petrel, with its lightning-fast reaction time and impressive beak, could have attacked and blinded these elephant seals upon release. The safest course for her would have been to rip his wing out of its socket. Given the discrepancy in weight and strength, it took considerable effort and care on your part to avoid doing just that. We are forced to look for a reason.

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