Sit back in your chair, your couch, or wherever you are reading this, and take a few deep breaths. Try to calm yourself down and tune into your surroundings. Use all your senses, see the words on this page. Hear the birds outside and the hum of your computer. Smell your burnt toast, wait! Go take it out! Taste the dryness in your mouth, maybe some coffee would go well with your burnt toast. How does it feel to sit in your seat, is your hair in your face? Feel yourself breathe and your lungs push against your stomach and ribs. Experience whatever you experience, whatever life is like for you at this moment, try your best to truly be aware of it.
Now imagine what this might be like for an ant. That intense feeling of being you just experienced, what could it possibly be like for another creature? Does it even exist? If so, is it like ours? The world we experience is shaped by our senses. We perceive things, and our brain uses the signals from these sensory organs to create a navigable world we exist in. Close your eyes, and you cannot see the world but it clearly still exists. For every different organism the world we live in is the same. Some may soar through the skies, swim at the bottom of the sea, or be so tiny that a mile to them is an inch to us. However, the wind, the sun, the rain, the earth, everything is the same, it is just perceived differently.
Jakub Von Uexkull tackled this problem of understanding what it might be like to be another life form in his book A Foray Into the Worlds of Animals and Humans: With A Theory of Meaning. Truly worth a read. He named the perceivable navigable world created by all living things, the Umwelt. He then named the feeling of living in the Umwelt as subjective experience. The experience felt by the creature that is experiencing its Umwelt.
We will start with understanding an Umwelt. You can imagine a bubble around a creature, or yourself. Everything perceived in this bubble from your senses, and how you interpret them creates your Umwelt. Your Umwelt is what you experienced at the beginning of this article. The feeling of being in the environment you are now in, constructed by all your senses.
Now let us look at the Umwelt of an ant. This creature is on average a million times smaller than us. However it still has a number of senses somewhat similar to our own, and certainly has an Umwelt. Ants have vision, however it is quite less complex from our own. They have compound eyes which cannot highlight different objects and focus on them specifically, but rather look in all directions at once. They are seeing very basic shapes with minimal detail. They do still see, so if an object, say a fallen branch, is blocking their path they will see it and be able to maneuver around it. Utilizing their vision in their Umwelt to navigate.
Ants have taste and smell as well, which their antennae gather. They will touch an object with their antenna and be able to taste it and smell it. Or they can gather scent particles or pheromones out of the air. You can watch as an ant leaving the nest passes another ant entering the nest on the same trail. They will come together touching antennae and mandibles, exchanging scent and sound to communicate. Even though the trail they follow is marked by scent, they still stop to share information.
Ants also feel, they have the sense of touch. When an ant is crawling on your arm, you feel her tiny feet through your sense of touch. You go to pick her off and lightly poke her with your finger. She begins running full speed, zig zagging down your forearm. Imagine if something a hundred times bigger than you poked you. I personally would start running!
Ants can also hear, and will often use this in communication. Drumming on their abdomens inside their nest as an alarm call to warn the rest of their sisters of intruders. They also can make noises with their mandibles, the mouth parts, to communicate with other ants and detail locations of food or predators. This highlights another similar part of the ants Umwelt to humans, the collaborative side. We sometimes work together to solve problems, and ants do the same, almost expanding our respective Umwelts by combining them.
This photo and the next three are of an ant becoming ensnared in an antlion death trap. Check out the video of the ant lion trap at the end of the article.
So far from humans yet so similar in many ways. Their main senses are sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell, just like us. They also collaborate and speak with one another to accomplish the work for the day. Funny how similar we are to something a million times smaller than us, with six legs, no skeleton, and a brain that requires a microscope to see.
One of the most fascinating things about ants came from an article I read, if you want the full piece click here: https://journals.biologists.com/jeb/article/218/6/819/14471/Insect-navigation-do-ants-live-in-the-now Ants in a test environment had the entrance to their nest on one side of the enclosure and the food source on the other. They established a trail that went to the food source, but had to go around a large stone. The experimenters waited until the ant passed the large stone and was collecting food to bring back to the nest, and then removed the large stone. They did not interfere with the ant's scent trail. What they found was that upon return, the ants experienced a moment of confusion when they saw that the large stone was removed. They would spin in a circle, looking for the stone and appeared to be wondering what happened to it. Then they would continue back to the nest.
Wow! The antlion thrashes around making the sand walls cave in. There is no escape for the ant.
This makes sense in evolutionarily, it is important to be aware of changes to your environment because it might mean a predator has passed through. However, this is also more interesting because it means that ants have memories of recent events, and that they are able to feel some sort of confusion when things do not match their previous memory.
The ant is trapped, captured by the long jaws of the antlion.
Science is developing in fascinating ways and uncovering the depths of subjective experience and Umwelts of all creatures on earth. It is a fascinating time to be learning about the deep fundamental similarities present in all creatures. I do my very best to give all my attention to every animal I meet and try to peek into their Umwelt. Please share any stories about animals you have below in the comments!
If you want to practice understanding the Umwelt of other creatures try to imagine what this experience was like for both the antlion, and ant in this predatory interaction.
Photos of ants from around the world, taken by Alex Havasi. Photos and video of Ant in antlion trap taken by Isaac Yelchin.
Isaac Yelchin is foremost a herpetologist. He studies lizards, frogs, newts, and the like. Specifically, he spends all day and night thinking about what it is like to be an animal. What are the animals thinking about? What is their perspective? When he should be working, he sits and stares at his pet lizard asking himself these questions.