Animal Senses

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(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange has often noticed that animals seem to know things that are obscure to us higher beings.

(LANGE) It was over thirty years ago. I was paddling alone across Allagash Lake. Far ahead of me on the water, a flock of seagulls was resting. Suddenly they broke into wild, shrieking flight, circling madly. What in the world had gotten into them? As I wondered, the evening exploded with a tremendous sonic boom.

That explained what had excited them. It didn’t explain how they’d sensed the coming noise. Obviously, their senses were keener than mine, but the sound waves had traveled to them almost ten seconds sooner than to me. How could sound travel faster than itself? Or was it an increasing pressure in the air ahead of the sound? That idea didn’t do much for me. I ended up believing, as I still do, that the boom had first struck on the earth just beneath the plane, and then traveled through rock and water to the seagulls. Sound travels faster through solids and liquids than through air. And the gulls had been sensitive enough to feel it in the water beneath them. I was unaware of it till, traveling more slowly in an arc tracing the earth’s surface, it reached my ears. Made me jump, too.

The day after Christmas 2004, a massive underwater earthquake displaced incalculable amounts of water and generated killer tsunamis. Tsunami is Japanese, meaning “harbor wave,” because, though tsunamis are deadly almost anywhere they strike land, they’re at their most destructive when they enter harbors. In the open ocean they’re virtually unnoticeable. When they reach shallow water, however, they pile up to appalling heights. They sweep everything before them till they’re spent inland, and then, retreating, carry rubble and people back out to sea.

The people living along the coasts felt the earthquake, but few of them understood the potential for a second disaster. They noticed the ocean receding and began collecting fish stranded in the pools. Then they saw a white line approaching, and heard a roaring sound.

Days later, rescuers noted the absence of wild animal corpses. Somehow the animals had escaped. Like the Allagash seagulls, they had known the waves were coming. Turns out that animals hear a greater range of sound than we can. A tsunami approaching the coast and building into monster surf generates low-frequency sound inaudible to us. But an engineer tells me that to animals it sounds like a fire siren.

Years ago in West Texas, my boss cautioned me never to walk around the house after dark if I could hear cattle nearby. I was mystified, till he explained they knew if there’d been rain anywhere upstream, and retreated to high ground around the house. So what? I wondered.

“Well,” he said, “the rattlesnakes come, too.”

Our science has set us apart, but not really above. I can’t help but regret what we’ve lost.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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