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Garter Snake Tongue (by kenhipp)

Garter Snake Tongue (by kenhipp)

Snakes might not be out there penning beautiful odes or solving quadratic equations (although they have the intelligence necessary to hunt clever birds and mammals) however the reptiles are distinguished by their amazing sensory abilities.  Like the extraordinary siluriformes (the catfish, which are living tongues that apprehend the world in astonishing ways), certain snakes have abilities to perceive things which other animals simply cannot detect.

Snakes double the primary senses of hearing, smelling, and sight—which means that some snakes effectively have eight or more senses.  Let’s go through these senses individually.

Hearing: Although the reptiles lack external ears, they have sensitive inner ears which allow them to hear airborne vibrations.  This however is only one mechanism of hearing for snakes: the animals have jaws linked to their inner ears which allow them to hear extremely faint vibrations.  Since most serpents have lower jawbones which are separated into two distinct bones, the animals are extremely adept at locating the source of a sound from the different time/frequency that vibrations strike the different bones. This means they can hear the source of sound with pinpoint accuracy.  These hearing abilities give some snakes 9especially desert snakes) the ability to hunt by sound in absolute darkness.

jacoborgan

Smell/taste:  Snakes breathe through two nostrils, but unlike mammals their “noses” have little to do with their sense of smell.  To quote an article involving snake senses from reptilis.net:

…snakes have gone a different route, one taken by their lepidosaurian relatives a long time ago. Instead of using only their nose, snakes have adapted their tongue and sense of taste to capturing scent particles in the air and transforming it into olfactory information.

Better yet, because snakes “smell” by “tasting” the air with their tongues, and because those tongues are typically forked, they also have incredible directional smelling. Snakes effectively smell in stereo.

So snakes are capable of amazing abilities to taste/smell their environment and they have directional smell which almost acts like hearing or sight in locating prey or mates.

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Sight: Most snakes have conventional binocular optical abilities on par with other vertebrates (although tree snakes are known to have particularly fine vision) however many groups of snakes (particularly the python and viper families) possess astonishing heat-sensing pit organs that can detect infrared light.  For their size, the sense organs are more heat sensitive than anything humans have created with technology.

Touch: Snakes have an amazingly sophisticated sense of touch (as one would might imagine for an animal which lives on its belly). Thanks to their sense of touch they can respond immediately to stimuli from their environment and they can feel the slightest changes in their habitat.  Additionally touch is important for snakes socially and is a primary means of communication between snakes of the same species.

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As with sharks, cats, and owls, snakes have used their astonishing senses to become formidable predators.  Snakes are widespread in all of the continents other than Antarctica and they dwell in all habitats other than permanently cold ones and deep ocean (well, plus a couple of weird islands).   This success is a result of their sharp and numerous senses.

The worldwide range of all snakes

The worldwide range of all snakes

Synodontis schoutedeni catfish (Credit: Oliver Drescher)

So what’s so amazing about catfish?  So far, Ferrebeekeeper has describing all sorts of different variations of these fascinating fish. From the giant truck-sized catfish of the Mekong, to the infinitesimal (yet horrifying) candirus of the Amazon, to the deadly poisonous schooling catfish of coral reefs, to catfish that live underground or in gardens, we have seen a seemingly impossible variety of the irrepressible whiskered creatures. But, aside from their variety, hardiness, and interesting appearance, catfish represent an extraordinary apogee in sensory ability.  They are able to apprehend their watery realms in ways that might as well be supernatural or alien to us.  Catfish have honed familiar senses—taste, smell, touch, hearing, and sight–to outrageous extremes. Yet they have additional senses—electroreceptivity, pressure sensitivity, and possibly other senses–that we are only starting to understand.

Channel catfish, Ictalurus punctatus

Let’s start with catfish’s sense of taste: catfish, unlike us, are not limited to tasting things with their tongues.  Their entire bodies are covered with taste buds.  To quote catfish expert Dr. John Caprio of Louisiana State University, “Catfish are swimming tongues…You can’t touch any place on a catfish without touching thousands of taste buds. To use an analogy, it’s as if the tip of your tongue grew out and covered your body.”  Catfish can literally taste the water all around their bodies and the mud they are swimming over.

Red-tailed Catfish, Phractocephalus hemioliopterus (Photo by Chad Cullen)

Beyond their powers of taste, catfish have a bloodhound-like sense of smell. With astonishingly sensitive olfactory pits near their nostrils, Catfish can smell certain compounds at one part per 10 billion parts of water. The sense of smell does not merely help them while hunting and seeking food, catfish use smell to identify other individual catfish and to maintain a social hierarchy.  A catfish has an elaborate picture of its watery realm, the denizens thereof, and of the history and interaction of these inhabitants based on smell.

Catfish Barbels

Catfish’s scale-free skin is unusually sensitive to touch but that is not the end of catfish’s ability to feel what is going on around it.  The most distinctive feature of catfish—their 8 barbels (whiskers) are literally organs for touching.  Like a blind man’s cane, each of these barbels can touch the substrate or whatever is moving in front of the catfish.  Not only are the barbels covered with taste buds and feeling nerves, the whiskers also vibrate with water disturbance and provide a sense almost like hearing—although catfish also have multiple hearing organs.

Black Bullhead Catfish (notice the prominent lateral line)

Vibrations travel well under water and most fish have excellent abilities to sense sound, but catfish have evolved some additional auditory features.  The swim bladder of a catfish (which the fish uses like a submarine ballast in order to rise and fall through the water column) is connected by a series of small bones (the Weberian apparatus) to the hearing apparatus (otoliths) inside the head. Catfish are therefore able to hear sounds of a higher frequency than other freshwater fish.  Catfish can also sense extremely low-frequency sounds thanks to a different hearing system—a series of small pores running along the fish’s lateral lines. Within the pores are infinitesimal hair-like sensing apparatuses which respond to the slightest water displacement. Using lateral line hearing, a Catfish can sense animals scuttling across the rocks on the bottom of a river, predators swimming above them, and even fishermen walking on the shore. Perhaps most remarkably, the low frequency sensors which catfish have in their lateral lines seem to give the fish the ability to detect seismic activity.  The Chinese and Japanese are said to have used the creatures as advanced earthquake detectors (which probably gave rise to the myth of Namazu, the Japanese earthquake catfish).

Although some catfish have small or underdeveloped eyes, the majority of catfish species can see extremely well. Additionally catfish possess a tapetum lucidum—a layer of reflective tissue at the back of the eyes which allows them to see keenly in low-light conditions (cat owners will recognize the tapetum lucidum as the flashing green glow of feline eyes).

Catfish in an Aquarium (further documentation required)

Finally catfish can sense the electrical discharges within the nervous and electrical-muscular systems of living things (in fact the electrical catfish goes a step beyond and uses electricity for hunting and self-defense).  The cells responsible for electroreception are found grouped together in tiny pits along the catfish’s head and along its lateral line.  Although electroreception has limited range, it is a powerful sense which can allow the fish to sense animals hidden beneath the mud or otherwise camouflaged.

A catfish’s life must be exciting—awash as they are in complicated overlaying sensory perceptions.  Their abilities to perceive the world have taken them farther than other fish. According to the Tree of Life web project:

Catfishes are a species rich and exceptionally diverse group of fishes ranking second or third among orders of vertebrates. The Catalog of Fishes (Eschmeyer, 1998 et seq.) database treats 2,855 species of catfishes as valid. About 1 in 4 valid species of freshwater fishes, 1 in 10 fishes, and 1 in 20 vertebrates, is a catfish.

Several hundred more species of catfish have been discovered since the above paragraph was written.  Paleontologists have even discovered fossils of catfish on Antarctica (the only continent where they can not currently be found living). Catfish are basically sentient sense-organs.  They have diversified and thrived by being able to discern what is going on in the world around them (and they have probably enjoyed the experience).

Ancistrus Bristelnose Catfish

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