Von Uexküll revisited: Addressing human biases in the study of animal perception.
More than a hundred years ago, the biologist Jakob von Uexküll suggested that, because sensory systems are diverse, animals likely inhabit different sensory worlds (umwelten) than we do. Since von Uexküll, work across sensory modalities has confirmed that animals sometimes perceive sensory information that humans cannot, and it is now well-established that one must account for this fact when studying an animal's behavior. We are less adept, however, at recognizing cases in which non-human animals may not detect or perceive stimuli the same way we do, which is our focus here. In particular, we discuss three ways in which our own perception can result in misinformed hypotheses about the function of various stimuli. In particular, we may (1) make untested assumptions about how sensory information is perceived, based on how we perceive or measure it, (2) attribute undue significance to stimuli that we perceive as complex or striking, and (3) assume that animals divide the sensory world in the same way that we as scientists do. We discuss each of these biases and provide examples of cases where animals cannot perceive or are not attending to stimuli in the same way that we do, and how this may lead us to mistaken assumptions. Because what an animal perceives affects its behavior, we argue that these biases are especially important for researchers in sensory ecology, cognition, and animal behavior and communication to consider. We suggest that studying animal umwelten requires integrative approaches that combine knowledge of sensory physiology with behavioral assays.
Caves, EM; Nowicki, S; Johnsen, S
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