Be the Trout

1448187231_be85e17541_bMost of the time I forget that my mother lacks a sense of smell. It’s only when I complain about something stinky or comment on a delicious smell that I remember she isn’t sharing the experience with me. As I’ve mentioned before, my mother has never had a sense of smell, or at least none that she can ever remember. As a child, I often wondered how she might imagine the sensation of smell. Would she do it by analogy to her other senses? Would she be able to do it at all?

I returned to these musings from a different perspective recently when I read a scientific paper about trout. Trout, along with other migratory species from salmon to sea turtles and certain types of birds, enjoy a sense that we lack: magnetosensation. These animals perceive magnetic fields (including that of the Earth) and can use this information to orient themselves and navigate. The study’s authors found magnetic cells inside the noses of trout, each with tiny iron-containing crystals attached to their cell membranes. Thus, when a trout changed direction relative to the Earth’s magnetic field, these miniature magnets would presumably tug on the cell’s membrane in a way that the cell could detect and signal to other parts of the trout’s nervous system. The evolution of these wonderful little biological compasses may have been necessary for migrating animals to evolve on our planet and happily roam, return, and repeat.

So today I put myself in my mother’s shoes (or nose) and tried to imagine a sense I didn’t have. What would it be like to feel magnetic fields? I tried to embrace the role and be the trout. I closed my eyes and imagined my little trout self swimming around within a magnetic field that changed as I moved. How would that feel for the trout? My imaginative efforts were rewarded with a strong percept – flashes of tingling across the surface of my skin that mirrored my changes in direction. In essence, I could only imagine magnetosensation by analogy to somatosensation, the sense of touch. And this is almost certainly not what magnetosensation feels like to a trout. Not only do they already have a sense of touch akin to our own, but they also detect magnetic fields with their snout rather than their whole body.

It makes sense that I imagined a foreign sensation by analogy to one I know. Each of our senses has dedicated processing areas in the brain. Without a brain area developed for magnetosensation, it may not be possible to do any better than imagine it by way of the senses our brain can process. Or maybe it’s possible for people with more imaginative imaginations than my own. If you give it a try, please let me know what you come up with! And the next time you find yourself staring down a trout, tilapia, tuna, or salmon on your plate, spare a moment to appreciate that it has experienced a realm of sensations beyond your imagination. And then – bon appétit!


Photo credit: sharkbait

Eder SHK, Cadiou H, Muhamad A, McNaughton PA, Kirschvink JL, & Winklhofer M (2012). Magnetic characterization of isolated candidate vertebrate magnetoreceptor cells PNAS DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1205653109

It’s a Zoo Out There!


Our house is filled with animals. We’ve got animal rattles, animal teethers, stuffed animals and all manner of animal-patterned clothing, towels, and bedding. Then of course there are the board books; those that don’t name animals and list their moos and oinks star bipedal animals that brush their teeth, wear pajamas, and often suffer crushing insecurities. And we’re not talking about your standard cat, dog or hamster. They are usually elephants. Giraffes. Hippopotami. Animals you don’t see cruising down the street on an ordinary day. They are animals you’d probably never see in person if not for your local zoo.

The exotic menagerie that has descended on our house has got me wondering: why do we surround our children with animals that will have no discernible role in their future lives? Why aren’t there more infant toys based on tax returns or grocery lists? Where are the books with titles like The Grumpy Morning Commute or Fruit Salad Makes a Friend? I imagine the reason we supply young children with all-things-animal is because that’s what they like. That’s what fascinates them. And who can blame them? From the elephant’s trunk to the lightning bug’s glow, the odd, diverse traits of other species are just about the neatest show on this planet of ours. It’s a fact we lose sight of as we get older. Giraffes are old news to us now. They’ve got super long necks. So what? Big deal.

This past week, however, I noticed my husband checking his iPhone with unusual glee. Had I heard? The new Mars rover landed without a hitch. Against all odds! And now it’s looking for signs of past or present life on Mars. How cool is that? As a scientist, I have to admit it’s pretty cool. But I can’t get as excited as my husband. It seems odd that we are investing so much to seek out microscopic life on another planet while there are still species here on Earth we have yet to discover. And while our own actions drive other species to extinction.

Clearly, we’ve forgotten how beautiful and strange and remarkable animals are. Perhaps we should re-brand them for adults. Maybe market them as aliens. If we found a cell on Mars (not to mention a roach or a mouse) we would go wild with excitement. Just imagine if the Curiosity rover found something as elegant as a jellyfish, as colorful as a peacock, or as chatty as a wise old humpback. Imagine how cool that would be.

I will have a chance to try this idea out sometime soon, as my new house in Michigan is near a big zoo. My husband and I have been meaning to go there ever since our move, not to see the animals ourselves but to witness our daughter’s reaction to them. Now I have a second reason to go. When we’re there, I’ll try to view the creatures as they might look to my daughter, who will be seeing them for the very first time. I’ll try to think of them as new and fantastic aliens that just so happen to live here on earth.


Photo credit: Doug Kukurudza

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